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 Ask the Attorney: Questions and Answers (back to Ask the Attorney)

Question: I am a parent of a child who has just been found eligible for special education services. When I talk with other parents of special education students and with school officials they are always talking about the "law and rules". What laws and rules are they referring to? How do I become familiar with them?

Answer: One of the reasons it can be difficult to understand "school law" is that there are so many different sources of "laws and rules" that are applicable to public schools. I have found it easiest way to explain this to someone new to this area of the law is to first look at an overview, and then look at each of the different sources of the laws, starting with the federal level (Washington), then the state level (Michigan) and ending with your local Intermediate School District and local school board.

Part I will provide an Overview, while Part II will cover the role of the federal government, Part III, the state government, and Part IV the local ISD and school district, with some research tips, and practical suggestions similar to what I provide to new clients of my law office when I first meet with them.


The federal (US government), the state (Michigan government), and your local school districts (your Intermediate School District and local school board) all have varying authority to create law (or rules) that depending on any given situation may be applicable to general and/or special education students. While true "laws" are only created by elected officials, the rules and regulations created by administrative agencies to implement the laws in the right setting can also have the power of a law.

Federal Level - On the federal level, the laws are created by the elected Congresspersons and signed into law by the President. Many laws condition the receipt of federal money on a state or local school agreeing to meet certain conditions. That is one reason that many of the laws that apply to public schools do not apply to private schools that do not receive federal monies. However, other laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are designed to control discrimination in public or school accommodations, so they may apply to all schools, both private and public.

Most laws have companion regulations (rules) that are created by the federal agency that is responsible for implementing a particular law. As to laws relating to education, the federal agencies charged with carrying out the law are generally the Department of Education or the Justice Department.

State Level - On the state level, there also are laws relating to education passed by the Michigan legislature and signed by the governor. Some laws are designed to meet the funding requirements of federal law so the state can qualify for federal funds (e.g. IDEA), while others again are designed to control conduct. As on the federal level, state laws generally have companion regulations, except the Michigan Department of Education creates the regulations via a public process called "rule making".

Local Level - On the local level, your local elected local school board may adopt policies that are applicable to just your school district or the Intermediate School Board (ISD) who may adopt policies for the entire ISD. These policies are then implemented by the superintendent and his or her administration.

Controlling Law and Regulation - Sorting out which law or rule controls can be a problem and can result in some confusion. Simply, while a local school district can offer more in terms of benefits or protection than what the federal and state laws and rules/regulations require, it cannot provide less. In turn, while the state can offer more than what the federal government requires, it cannot provide less. For many reasons, including drafting errors, attorneys for both school districts and parents can spend considerable time and effort in determining (and arguing) exactly which law or rule controls any given situation.

Role of the Courts - When conflicts arise regarding the proper application of the law or interpreting exactly what the legislature intended when it passed a law, a parent or the school may elect to have a court of proper jurisdiction interpret the law. The courts also handle appeals from state level review in IDEA due process hearings and appeals from decisions of local school boards. Exactly which school districts will be affected by a court's interpretation of a law depends on the jurisdiction of the court and the decision itself is outside the scope of this answer.

Finding Applicable Law and Regulation - to be able to locate and have a lay persons understanding of "the laws" that may be applicable to a particular situation requires one to examine federal, state and local laws and regulations:

Hope this helps your understanding;

John Brower, JD
Education Law Center, PLLC

Next week, Part II - Federal Role.

Education Law Center, PLLC 810-227-9850 

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