Back to school

Welcome to the jungle. Special Education is a complicated ecosystem and whether you’re in the thicket or about to step into it, you undoubtedly have questions. To help, The Boost has put together a Special Education primer of guides and resources to help you navigate the rules and regulations that aim to give students with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Of course, a primer lays things out quite neatly, and special ed is anything but clear-cut. The number of students in special ed in the U.S. has nearly doubled over the past four decades, creating a rising share of public school kids who need these services. The total number of students in special ed went from 3.6 million in the 1976-77 school year, to almost 7.3 million in 2021-22.

This puts a strain on an already fragile system. For instance, 45% of schools nationwide reported special ed teacher vacancies, and 78% reported difficulty in hiring, according to a 2022 U.S. Schools Report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But there’s good news, too. For one, the law is on your side. There are also untold numbers of dedicated educators who day in and day out commit themselves to giving your child the best education possible. And you’re not alone. Expert advocates nationwide can help you navigate the system’s ins and outs. (See “Advocates” section below.)

Let’s get to it. The below includes info focused on, but not inclusive to, New York State.

The Law

Special Education, which in theory comes at no cost to parents, is governed by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Passed in 1975, the law makes available a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to eligible children with disabilities and ensures special education and related services to those children.

Who’s Eligible

Infants and toddlers, birth through age 2, with disabilities and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C.

Three- to 21-year-olds with disabilities receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B.

Early Intervention

In New York, to be eligible for services children must have a confirmed disability or established developmental delay, as defined by the State, in one or more of the following areas of development: physical, cognitive, communication, social-emotional, and/or adaptive.

You can contact your municipal Early Intervention Official (EIO) for information about your local program or to refer a child. For information about the statewide program, contact the NYS Department of Health, Bureau of Early Intervention at (518) 473-7016 or e-mail

If your 3-year-old received services from the Early Intervention Program and is in need of special education services, they will need to transition (move) into the preschool special education program. The Early Intervention official from your county must give written notice to the Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE) in your local school district that your child may be transitioning. With your consent, a transition plan must be developed no later than three months before your child’s third birthday.

The Steps

The source for the below is Parent’s Guide: Special Education in New York State for Children Ages 3–21, where you’ll find details. Note: The heart of the process is the Individualized Education Program (IEP), which you’ll hash out with the school every step of the way, every year.

  • Step 1: Initial Referral: This goes to a district’s multidisciplinary team called the Committee on Special Education (CSE) or the Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE). CPSE is responsible for ages 3-5; CSE is responsible for ages 5-21. Some school districts also have Subcommittees on Special Education.
  • Step 2: Individual Evaluation Process: The Committee arranges for an evaluation of the student’s abilities and needs. (Additional evaluation info can be found here.)
  • Step 3: Determining Eligibility: It’s in the hands of the Committee, based on evaluation results.
  • Step 4: Individualized Education Program (IEP): If the child is eligible to receive special education services, the Committee develops and implements an appropriate IEP, based on evaluation results, to meet the needs of the student. Services are to be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
  • Step 5: Annual Review/Reevaluation: The IEP is reviewed and, if needed, modified or revised by the Committee at least once a year (annual review). The student has a reevaluation at least once every three years, but it may also occur when conditions warrant or when requested by a parent or teacher.

Dispute Resolution Options

The NYS Office of Special Ed is responsible for ensuring a system of due process consistent with New York State law and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Due process procedures have been established to provide specific options for resolving concerns or disagreements that arise between parents and school districts about the identification, evaluation, educational placement of, or the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to a student with a disability or a student suspected of having a disability.

There are three distinct options for special education dispute resolution:

Types of Diplomas

Students with an IEP have several what’s called “exiting options,” programs, and activities. Check them out in the Transition Guide from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSER), U.S. Department of Education.

Postsecondary Transitioning

(Source: OSER Transition Guide)

Both the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act require transition services to be available to students and youth with disabilities as they prepare for and enter postsecondary life. But with years of structured support ending and adult services understaffed and underfunded, there’s a reason this period is called “the cliff.”

Transition services require a coordinated set of activities “within an outcome-oriented process” that relies upon active student involvement, family engagement, and cooperative implementation of transition activities, as well as coordination and collaboration between the vocational rehabilitation (VR) agency, the State educational agency (SEA), and the local educational agencies (LEAs).

Planning for these services starts in high school. It must start by the time a student turns 16, but the earlier the better.

Additional resources

101 Answers: How to Get Help at School for Your Child with a Disability This excellent booklet comes from Student Advocacy, a nonprofit legally based education advocacy agency in New York that offers services including representing students and families at EP meetings. (Read more about Student Advocacy below.)

The ARC@School The ARC provides training and resources to help families and other stakeholders navigate the special education system.

U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Blog A recently produced series of blog posts on transitioning from The Dept. of Education.

NYS Education Dept. Transition guide

Simple Ways to Transition Back to School With Autism 


Some agencies to call, and some to peruse to keep abreast of helpful seminars and resources:


Parent Centers (p. 41): Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIC), Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRC), and Parent Centers are funded by State and Federal grants. They provide workshops on parent rights, necessary services, advocacy and other relevant presentations for parents of children with disabilities. Call them for information and/or assistance.

New York

Student Advocacy This amazing organization, based in Elmsford, N.Y., provides legally-based education advocacy services for youth in Westchester and Putnam counties. Its services are offered free of charge to families, or on a sliding scale.

NYS Special Education Advocates The state advocacy program can help parents of students with disabilities navigate through the school system to determine an appropriate education that meets their child’s needs. It also offers workshops.

Parent to Parent of NYS This statewide network of parents who provide emotional support to families of individuals with special needs often offers special education workshops.

Advocates for Children of New York Its staff of attorneys and education specialists provide free legal and advocacy services, including representation at school-related hearings and appeals, and teaches families what they need to know to stand up for their children’s educational rights.

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!