Law Office of Michelle Ball Disabilities,Ed 50000s,Special education/IEP What is the Definition of Special Education in California?

What is the Definition of Special Education in California?

School definition of special education.

Last Updated on September 8, 2022 by Michelle Ball

By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995

Hundreds of thousands of parents have students in special education, but do not really know what the definition of “special education” is. There IS an actual, specific, legal definition, of “special education” outlined in both state and federal law.

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Legal definitions are important to know in school issues

California’s Definition of Special Education

Per California Education Code 56031(a) “Special education,” is:

[S]pecially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, to meet the unique needs of individuals with exceptional needs, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and other settings, and instruction in physical education.

The Federal Definition of Special Education

The federal definition, which is even more brief, states:

The term “special education” means specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including –
(A) instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and
(B) instruction in physical education.

Related Services Are Not in Both Definitions of “Special Education”

The federal law does not include related services in the technical definition of “special education,” and instead, related services are included in the “Child with a Disability” legal definition.

California Education Code 56031(b), does have related services in its actual definition of special education, which includes:

a) Speech and language services
b) Any other any other designated instruction and service or related service [see Education Code 56363 for a full list]
c) Travel training
d) Vocational education

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If school districts don’t know the law, they may exclude students who should qualify for special education

Districts Can Be Confused and Mistakenly Deny Qualified Students

Legal standards and definitions may need to be referenced when advocating for a student’s rights, as even experienced school districts can be confused about their obligations.  

For example, I assisted student who was homebound (could not physically attend school due to disability) and a school district denied the student was qualified for special education as independent study was available.  

This denial was mistaken. Instruction in the home is included in both the federal and California definitions of special education.

An inability to physically leave the home, thus triggering a need for instruction at home because of the student’s disability, should qualify the student for special education and an IEP (Individualized Education Program).  

When the school was educated on just what the definition of special education is and who qualifies, the student was promptly qualified and in home education provided.

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Parents need to know the laws to advocate successfully

Knowledge is Important

Parents must know these legal definitions exist and what they are.  Attempting to argue any other special education “definitions,” or without a definition at all, can result in losses for the student.  

If parents utilize proper legal definitions in their advocacy, they should be able to get further in their quest for student services and support.

Michelle Ball is an attorney representing students in special education and 504 matters. As an education lawyer in Sacramento California, she can assist throughout the state, in Natomas, Elk Grove, Laguna, Modesto, Woodland, and many other locations.

Originally written January 5, 2012