Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

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Federal law requires any school that receives public funding to give students with disabilities free appropriate public education (FAPE). FAPE must be provided at public expense, under public supervision, and without charge. FAPE must meet the standards set by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). It must also follow the plan set by a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). A student’s IEP is designed by a team of school staff, teachers, and the student’s parents. To learn more about the IEP process, read How to Ask for Special Education Services for My Child.

FAPE applies both in school and when a student is expelled.


The Special Education Services (SES) and all related evaluations for your child must be done at no cost to you. A school district can bill Medicaid or your private insurance for services provided for the student. However, a school district cannot:

  • Require you sign up for public benefits or private insurance

  • Limit the services it provides to only those covered by Medicaid or private insurance

  • Require you to pay co-payments or deductibles

  • Do things that decrease your lifetime benefits or take away from services needed outside of school

  • Do things that increase your premiums, cause your coverage to be canceled, or make your child ineligible for other programs

  • Seek reimbursement without your consent

This does not mean that there will never be any school-related expenses for you. You may have to pay the same fees everyone else pays, like lab and field trip fees. The school cannot charge you extra fees because your child has a disability.


Courts define “appropriate” as meaning:

  • An educational program designed using the IEP process, and

  • A program designed to help the student, based on the student’s needs.

An appropriate program must be based on different evaluations to decide on the best SES for your child. It must also contain specially designed instruction to meet your child’s needs. The program is based on need, rather than availability. It should help your child make progress towards set goals, measure the progress based on your child’s abilities, and be reviewed on a regular basis. The program must also be set in a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE means a student receiving SES should be with students receiving general education as much as possible. To learn more about LRE, read “The Least Restrictive Environment” below.

An appropriate program does not have to be the best education possible. In most cases, children don’t have a right to be placed at a certain school or with a certain teacher. Parents can still make those requests, but the school doesn’t have to grant them. In some cases, a parent can challenge a school district’s decisions if the program chosen is not working or will obviously not work.

Public Education

SES and the related protections are for students in public schools, charter schools, and alternative schools. When schools get money from the federal government or the state of Michigan, they must follow special education guidelines. Some private schools also get small amounts of federal money. If there is a question about whether a school must follow special education guidelines, you can contact the school staff or a lawyer. 

Whether you have a low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area. If you have a low income, you may qualify for free legal services. If you are not able to get free legal services but can’t afford high legal fees, consider hiring a lawyer for part of your case instead of the whole thing. This is called limited scope representation. To learn more, read Limited Scope Representation (LSR): A More Affordable Way to Hire a Lawyer. To find a limited scope lawyer, follow this link to the State Bar of Michigan lawyer directory. This link lists lawyers who offer limited scope representation. You can narrow the results to lawyers in your area by typing in your county, city, or zip code at the top of the page. You can also narrow the results by topic by entering the kind of lawyer you need (divorce, estate, etc.) at the top of the page.

The Least Restrictive Environment

Once a student is eligible for SES, services must be offered in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This means schools must offer SES in settings with students receiving general education as much as possible. A school must offer supports, such as aides, to help a student with disabilities spend as much time as possible in a classroom with their peers.

A student’s placement should start in general education. Depending on the student’s needs, their IEP, and recommendations of teachers and parents, the placement can be changed. This allows for split placement. This means the student is included in some general education classrooms and activities, and gets other special services outside the classroom.

FAPE for Suspended and Expelled Students

If a student receiving SES is suspended or expelled, the school must still provide the student with FAPE. School officials can choose where to offer education services to the student. However, the setting must meet the standards set by the MDE and the student’s IEP.