Special Education: California Law

By Victoria Lee Blackstone

Updated December 24, 2019

Teacher Welcoming Students to Class


California’s special education laws include regulations from two governmental bodies – federal and state. In addition to federally mandated special education requirements, California offers other specialized services to meet the needs of many students. After first determining a student’s need for special education, the California Department of Education (CDE) then provides the resources for students and their parents to meet its educational goals through specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents.

California Special Education Services

For the years 2018 and 2019, California provided special education services to 794,604 individuals, from birth to age 22. These services were provided in different types of settings, including daycare facilities, preschool, regular classrooms, specially designed instruction classrooms, communities and work environments.

For 2018 through 2019, the CDE lists these special education disability categories of individuals served in these educational settings as well as the enrollment in each category:

  • Autism: 120,095.
  • Deaf-blindness: 114.
  • Deafness: 3,223.
  • Emotional disturbance: 25,233.
  • Hard of hearing: 10,657.
  • Intellectual disabilities: 43,770.
  • Multiple disabilities: 7,308.
  • Orthopedic impairment: 9,916.
  • Other health impairment: 104,349.
  • Specific learning disability: 300,295.
  • Speech or language impairment: 164,698.
  • Traumatic brain injury: 1,541.
  • Visual impairment: 3,405.

Least-Restrictive Environment

An important component of California special education laws, which mirrors special education laws at the federal level, is the mandate that children are allowed to learn in the “least-restrictive environment” (LRE). This means that students in a special education curriculum cannot be isolated from the other non-disabled students in a school.

To the fullest extent possible, disabled and non-disabled students must share their learning environments. It’s only when the nature and severity of a student’s special education needs are prohibitive to this blended learning environment that the student’s special education services can be offered in a separate classroom.

Advisory Commission on Special Education

Mandated by federal and state laws, the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) is tasked with studying, assisting, and providing recommendations for the education and unmet needs of persons with disabilities. The ACSE must report its findings at least once each year to the governor of California, the state legislature, the CDE and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Individuals with disabilities or parents of children (ages birth to 26 years) with disabilities comprise the majority of ACSE members. Each public member serves a four-year term, not to exceed a total of two terms (eight years) of service. Members serve without compensation, except for reimbursement of necessary expenses such as travel.

California ACSE Member Roster

California Code Sections 33500 through 33596 outline the regulations for the ACSE. The commission has 17 members, 15 of whom are appointed public members and two of whom represent the state legislature. State legislature members include one from the Senate, appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules, and one from the assembly, appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly.

Appointed public members include:

  • Three members appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, two of whom are individuals with a disability or parents of students enrolled in a public or private school currently receiving or having previously received special education services.
  • Three members appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules, two of whom are individuals with a disability or parents of students enrolled in a public or private school currently receiving or having previously received special education services.
  • Four members are appointed by the governor, two of whom are parents of students enrolled in a public or private school currently receiving or having previously received special education services.
  • Five members are appointed by the California State Board of Education at the recommendation of the superintendent or board of education members, three of whom are parents of students enrolled in a public or private school currently receiving or having previously received special education services.

California Special Education Division

The CDE has a separate Special Education division, which is a part of the Opportunities for All Branch. The directives and goals for this division and branch are to help students fulfill their educational goals, support teachers and other members of the school district, provide information and resources to parents, and serve the special needs of students with disabilities, so the students are able to meet or exceed achievement standards for academic as well as non-academic skills.

The Opportunities for All Branch notes that their path to helping students includes celebrating diversity and embracing inclusion.

California Special Education Cooperative Effort

Although the CDE provides educational leadership at the state level, it isn’t a unilateral provider of special education services. The CDE works cooperatively with other state agencies using a holistic approach to special education that includes family-centered services and post-secondary transition assistance from school to the workforce and adult life. Student evaluations and current research analysis drive this statewide cooperative effort.

California Special Education Programs

The CDE offers many programs and projects that seek to narrow the achievement gap between students with different abilities and the general population, including:

  • Resources in Special Education (RiSE).
  • Technical assistance with Least-Restrictive Environments (LREs).
  • Supporting Early Education Delivery Systems (SEEDS).
  • Special Education Early Childhood Administrators Project (SEECAP).
  • Technical assistance for students with low-incidence disabilities (visual and orthopedic disabilities).
  • Focused monitoring projects.

The CDE also works with universities and colleges to provide staff development services and training. The goal of these services and training is to help equip future teachers and other service providers to work with disabled children.

The Importance of an IEP

California schools must follow a federal- and state-mandated protocol to determine a student’s need for special education as well as the specific services the student should receive. If a student is struggling, the school must try to meet the student’s needs without special education by implementing other strategies. But if the school is still unsuccessful in meeting a student’s needs, it must evaluate the student to determine if special education services are warranted to meet the student’s disability.

At the recommendation of an evaluator, the school facilitates a meeting between the parents (or other persons who hold educational decision-making rights), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school administrator and the evaluator. Working together, these stakeholders form an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a written plan for the student’s special education needs. The IEP forms the cornerstone of a student’s special education.

Components of an IEP

The California court system outlines the required parts of an IEP, which include:

  • A statement of a child’s present levels of educational performance.
  • A statement of measurable goals, including short- and long-term objectives.
  • A statement of the special education and related services that a child needs.
  • An explanation of the extent to which a child will not participate with non-disabled children.
  • Projected dates for services to begin.

At an IEP meeting, parents decide whether they consent to the IEP plan. If a parent gives written consent, the IEP plan must begin as soon as possible. If a parent does not give written consent, the school district is neither required nor allowed to give a child the special education services outlined in the IEP.

IEP Annual Reviews

IEP reviews must be held at least once a year. If, however, parents have concerns about their child’s IEP, including a newly presented and unaddressed educational issue, they can request an IEP meeting regardless of whether the time frame falls short of the annual review. After a school receives a parent’s request for an IEP meeting, it must hold the meeting within 30 days.

Special Education Surrogate Parents

As part of the funding criteria for the federally mandated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), each state must meet certain regulations before it can receive federal funds for special education. One of these requirements is that each state must provide assurance that surrogate parents are appointed for each special education student who does not have parental representation throughout the special education process. To meet this federal mandate and ensure state compliance, the CDE is required by California law (Code Section 7579.5) to “develop a model surrogate parent training module and manual that shall be made available to local educational agencies.”

Among other considerations, local educational agencies (LEAs) must follow these protocols when appointing surrogate parents:

  • Identify children in need of a surrogate parent.
  • Oversee the appointment process.
  • Educate surrogate parents in their rights, responsibilities and requirements.
  • Recruit surrogate parents.
  • Train surrogate parents.
  • Educate all involved agencies in their roles and responsibilities for implementing this program.

With some exceptions, LEA-appointed surrogate parents cannot be employees of any public or private agency that’s involved in educating or caring for the child; surrogates cannot have a conflict of interest with the children they represent; and surrogates should be equipped with the knowledge and skills that form their competent representation of the children.

California’s SELPA Plans

Among other federally mandated IDEA regulations for special education, each special education local plan area (SELPA) must ensure its compliance with special education laws as well as ensure that the availability of its special education program options will continue to meet the needs of students. As of July 1, 2020, each California SELPA must conduct a review of its plan at least once every three years, updating it as needed to ensure compliance with California Code Section 56195.9.

Special Education IEP Complaint Process

If a school fails to implement the agreed-upon services in a child’s IEP or otherwise violates special education law, a parent may file a complaint with the California Department of Education Special Education Division. Students, teachers and agency representatives may also file complaints. The complaint is a written request that sets in motion an investigation by the CDE to explore allegations of noncompliance made by the complainant.

The complainant can use the model complaint form, which is downloadable in PDF format from cde.ca.gov, or the complainant can write a letter that contains information, such as:

  • A statement that explains how a school district or public agency violated special education law in the year prior to the complaint’s filing.
  • A listing of facts that support the statement.
  • The complainant’s signature and contact information.
  • The child’s name, address and school (if the complainant is alleging child-specific violations).
  • The complainant’s proposed resolutions.

Complainants should mail their complaints to: California Department of Education, Special Education Division, 1430 N Street, Suite 2401, Sacramento, CA 95814-5901. Complainants may also fax their complaints to 916-327-3704.

Other Special Education Disputes

Disagreements other than IEP concerns are handled differently. For example, a school may try to save money by cutting corners on offering special education services or even deny the services, or there may be disagreements over the interpretation of special education laws. In disputes such as this, parents should file their complaints with the California Office of Administrative Hearing (OAH). The OAH will facilitate dispute resolution, which includes dual-party resolution sessions, formal mediation sessions and due process hearings in front of an OAH administrative law judge.