Understanding FAPE & LRE

The terms FAPE and LRE are all over your paperwork. But what does FAPE stand for? What does LRE really mean? The goal of this page is to help you understand both FAPE and LRE-- and learn how to meet them as a teacher!

So, What's FAPE?

FAPE is at the heart of special education–  FAPE is the promise that we make to students and their families when we offer them special education services. We will provide them services free of charge that are appropriate to them at our public schools. That promise is what special education is all about and why FAPE is so important!

FAPE stands for a “Free appropriate public education” 300.101. Free means that students do not have to pay for needed services. Appropriate means that the services are sufficient to help a student make progress. Public means provided by the local school district or SELPA (special education local plan area). 

Exactly what those words means has been litigated many times. Basically, FAPE means that children with disabilities are entitled to a public school education that addresses their unique needs with the services that they need to make progress in their education. 

IDEIA states that states most offer FAPE to students from 3 to 21 (300.101) and that:

“300.17  Free appropriate public education or FAPE means special education and related services that—

  • (a) Are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;
  • (b) Meet the standards of the SEA, including the requirements of this part;
  • (c) Include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved; and
  • (d) Are provided in conformity with an individualized education program (IEP) that meets the requirements of §§300.320 through 300.324.”

SEA here means state educational authority. Basically, this stats that children with disabilities from 3 to 21 are entitled to a free education at a state  accredited, public school. Note that there are exceptions to FAPE, which include incarceration and private schools.

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled about FAPE in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 137 S. Ct. 988 (U.S. 2017). At the heart of the case was what counted as an appropriate education. Every year the student had goals that were basically the same (sound familiar?). Was that child’s education appropriate? 

The Supreme Court ruled that meeting FAPE meant, “an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

While the Supreme Court had ruled in the past that special education did not have to deliver maximum growth for a student, just some growth their 2017 ruling clarified that students with special needs deserve to be given and pushed to meet challenging goals. Stagnation is not okay.

  • Get students the related services they need to make growth (aka get help if you can)
  • Perform strong assessments so you know exactly where a student is and can document growth
  • Write challenging goals for that student that are achievable. Look at their past growth and how they are doing in group– how much can you push them? My friend has a son with Down’s syndrome. Every year teachers told her that he will learn in his own time. One year, he got a teacher who said oh no, he is going to learn in my time. He made more growth that one year than the four years before. Write goals to be that teacher.

What's LRE?

LRE is much more controversial! It tells families WHERE we will be delivering FAPE and is one of the most heavily litigated– and rapidly shifting– parts of special education. We have gone from a model of special education where students were educated in segregated schools or segregated rooms at comprehensive schools to a model of inclusion. LRE is the tool that policy makers and advocates have used to push for inclusion, which is why it is so important to understand!

LRE stands for Least Restrictive Environment. Children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the Least Restrictive Environment possible for them.

Restrictive refers to how segregated the classroom is. A school that only has children with special needs is the most restrictive environment while a general education classroom with no support is the least restrictive environment. In between the two extremes are general education classrooms with special education support and small pull out groups of just children with special needs. Most children are served in variety of different environments during the day depending on their needs in a particular subject area.

The goal of special education is inclusion, not segregation and LRE is the part of the law that spells that out. 

The law is pretty clear on this one– students with disabilities have the legal right (and requirement) to be in general education as much as they can. Here is what IDEIA says:

“(1) Except as provided in §300.324(d)(2)… the State must have in effect policies and procedures to ensure that public agencies in the State meet [LRE]
(2) Each public agency must ensure that—
  • (i) To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and
  • (ii) Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Segregation is a LAST CASE option, not a first case for students with disabilities

In practice, LRE means, 1) what type of school does a student attend? Comprehensive or special education only? 2) within each day, how much time are spending in general education classrooms?

As a special education teacher, what LRE means to you is the hours and  location of service. Are you serving a child outside of general education? For how many hours? For every hour that you serve a child outside of general education, under the law, you must have a really good explanation for why that service could not be delivered in general education.

Note that this does not mean that all students have to attend comprehensive schools or be in general education classrooms all day– just that general education is the default and it is our job to figure out how to get students the supports and services they need to thrive in that placement.

This is the biggest challenge for teachers! What do you do if you have one K student in each of four classes? How do you meet each one’s hours and needs without pulling them out all of the time? Also, how do you even determine hours of service? Here are some, probably not that helpful because it is really hard, tips.

  • Be creative. During classroom placement, work with teachers and leadership. Can you cluster students and increase services to one classroom? If you can’t, is there any option of deploying students within the school during the day to cluster services? If you can’t do that, can some of the burden be met by related services? Like if all classes have reading at the same time, can you get help? If you can’t do that, can you convince teachers to offset times for subjects where students need support so that guided reading is not at the same time in three classrooms? 
  • Work with teachers. Your time is finite. You need to be in general education classrooms when your students need you, not at random times. Be honest with teachers and build your schedule with them to ensure that you are able to be in the classroom at the most helpful times, even if that means them having to switch independent reading and read aloud times. Gift cards and sorrowful eyes might help.
  • Be strategic about pull outs. LRE doesn’t mean you can’t do them– just that you need to be intentional about them. What do you absolutely need to pull students out for? How can you maximize every out of classroom moment? 


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