Special Populations

Federal law makes provisions for students that make up special populations, such as English learners and students with special needs. School Liaisons need to be informed about these laws and provisions to best serve the needs of certain military-connected children and their families.

English Learners

The number of students who are English learners, or ELs, in the United States has sharply increased in recent years. According to the National Center for Bilingual Education, this population will make up over 40 percent of all students in elementary and secondary education in the United States by 2030. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) has been interpreted to require schools to establish programs for ELs when necessary and to provide equal educational opportunities for language-minority students. The Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education enforces Title VI through proactive compliance reviews and investigations of complaints of discrimination, including in the provision of services to ELs and their parents to ensure that those students are given access to equal educational services as mandated by Federal law.

The 1994 and 2002 reauthorizations of ESEA required states to include ELs in state assessment programs. Under ESEA and Title VI, schools must identify students as potential ELs, assess students’ need for EL services; develop a program that, in the view of experts in the field, has a reasonable chance for success; ensure that necessary staff, curricular materials, and facilities are in place and used properly; develop appropriate evaluation standards, including program exit criteria, for measuring the progress of students; and assess the success of the program and modify it where needed. In the 2002 reauthorization of ESEA, states, local school districts, and schools must also assess the English language proficiency of English language learners annually in reading and math. ESEA also requires states to develop English language proficiency (ELP) standards for English learners. Districts and schools are responsible for providing required language instruction educational programs for ELs, and states and local educational agencies and schools are accountable for ensuring ELs meet the state established performance targets.

Students With Special Needs

Three Federal laws provide the legal foundation for the education of children with disabilities, as well as providing funding. The primary laws in this area are as follows: (See Module 9 on students with special needs for more information)

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – Under this law, the Federal Government provides grants to states for services to children with disabilities. First enacted by Congress in 1975, IDEA governs how states, school districts, and other public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. Infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth to age 2 and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Under IDEA Part B, States must make available to all children and youth with disabilities ranging in age from 3 to 21 a free appropriate public education, including special education and related services. One of the key components of IDEA Part B for schools, families, and students is the Individualized Education Program (IEP), which provides a blueprint for the specific education and related services a child receives.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) – This Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. The U.S. Department of Education provides financial assistance to schools, colleges, and certain other entities, such as vocational rehabilitation programs. Examples of prohibited discrimination include denial of access to educational programs and activities and denial of a free appropriate public education for elementary and secondary students with disabilities. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Education enforces Section 504. OCR acts on complaints it receives from individuals or groups, including parents, students, and advocates; conducts agency-initiated compliance reviews; and provides technical assistance to school districts, parents, and advocates. OCR often enters into resolution agreements with school districts or other entities; however, ultimately recipients risk loss of Federal financial assistance if they fail to meet the requirements of Section 504.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) – Title II of the ADA (Title II) prohibits disability discrimination in the full range of state and local government services, programs, and activities (including public schools), regardless of whether they receive any Federal financial assistance. In general, Section 504 and Title II requirements are similar.

Title II and Section 504 protect qualified students with disabilities. To have a disability under Title II and Section 504, a student must (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or (2) have a record of such an impairment or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment. Some examples of major life activities are caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Generally in the elementary and secondary context, a student with a disability is a “qualified” student with a disability if she or he is of school age. The Section 504 regulations, and by interpretation Title II, require that school districts provide a free appropriate public education to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The provision of an appropriate education under Section 504 includes regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the individual educational needs of a student with a disability to the same level as the needs of students without disabilities are met. A student who is not eligible for services under IDEA may nonetheless be an individual with a disability under Section 504 and Title II and thus entitled to the protections against discrimination, including the right to a free appropriate public education under Section 504 and Title II. 

ESEA requires states to assess the achievement of students with disabilities as part of their state assessment programs and to hold schools accountable for those students’ annual progress toward proficiency. Students with severe disabilities who cannot participate in regular assessments can take alternate assessments with alternate achievement standards.