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NCD Statement on the 40th Anniversary of IDEA

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

November 24, 2015

I have approved S. 6, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver… Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill – educating all handicapped children in our Nation. The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective.
– President Gerald Ford

On November 29, 1975, President Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act—which passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support—into law with the above caution. Ford had serious reservations about the legislation’s likelihood of success. While publicly supporting the concept of securing the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities itself marked a significant milestone, over the past 40 years of this law’s existence, one could argue that despite significant progress in some areas, and unforeseen hardships in others, Ford’s concerns remain valid today.

One clear, albeit intangible, sign of progress is that the original title of the law seems strangely archaic forty years later. Fourteen years after Public Law 94-142 was passed, now retired Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced an amendment to remove the word handicapped and modernize the name of the law to what it is today: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

IDEA was a direct response to congressional concerns for two groups of children: more than 1 million children with disabilities who were excluded entirely from the education system and the children with disabilities who had only limited access “to the education system and were therefore denied an appropriate education.

This latter group comprised more than half of all children with disabilities who were living in the United States in 1975. These issues of improved access became guiding principles for continued advances in educating children with disabilities.

The four purposes of the original law were to:

  • Assure that all children with disabilities have a free, appropriate, public education;
  • Assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected;
  • Assure that states and localities provide for the education of all children with disabilities; and
  • Assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities.

Before 1975, a majority of the then almost 4 million children with disabilities were denied meaningful participation in the public education. Nearly half of that total were excluded entirely from public schools, and the rest were either placed in grossly inadequate, segregated classrooms or inaccessible or non-inclusive classrooms lacking meaningful supports. Encouraged by the success of the civil rights movement and the Brown v. the Board of Education decision, parents of children with disabilities turned to the courts.

Since 1975, significant progress has been made in the creation and implementation of programs and services for early childhood intervention, special education, and related services. Early intervention programs and services are provided to almost 200,000 eligible infants and toddlers and their families, while nearly 6 million young people receive special education and related services to meet their specific and individual needs. Other accomplishments directly attributable to IDEA include educating more children in their neighborhood schools, rather than in separate schools and institutions, and considerable improvements in the rate of high school graduation, post-secondary school enrollment, and post-school employment for youth with disabilities who benefited from IDEA.

While Public Law 94-142 codified a national challenge to ensure access to education for all children with disabilities, the 1997 Amendments to IDEA signed into law by President Bill Clinton articulated a new directive to improve educational results for disabled children and their families.

But we’re not quite there yet. According to the most current data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, the Federal Government’s failure to meet its promised funding obligation has stressed many state and local budgets to the point where many districts routinely struggle to meet student needs.

In 1975, Congress promised to cover 40 percent of the average cost to educate a child with disabilities, but decades later, broken promises and disagreements over the Federal Government’s funding responsibilities remain. Congress later amended the law to say that the Federal Government would pay a “maximum” of 40 percent of per-pupil costs. Today, the federal government pays less than half of what it originally promised in 1975, or roughly 18 percent of the total.

Further, confusing disciplinary provisions added and refined in the last two IDEA reauthorizations have allowed schools to ignore their overarching obligation to provide FAPE, particularly the requirement to consider behavioral supports in the individualized education plan.

Our nation’s ability to excel in a global economy depends on the inclusion of and investment into every individual. We cannot afford to leave anyone out.

IDEA was passed 40 years ago, to a large degree, because of a seismic shift in thinking—a combination of higher expectations and forward-thinking bipartisan federal leadership that sought to provide a workable mechanism for each student, including those with disabilities, to participate and contribute meaningfully to society.

As a civil rights law IDEA has rightfully, and by design, facilitated unprecedented access to education for more than six million children who otherwise might not receive the support programs and services they need to live, learn and earn alongside their non-disabled peers in the United States of America.

As public policy, by contrast, the regulation, delivery and implementation of education services to disabled students leaves much to be desired. Many have suggested that the primary reason for the sizeable gap between intention and achievement goes directly back to inadequate funding. Despite repeated promises across administrations, IDEA has never been fully funded. There have been numerous proposals since the law was passed four decades ago to finally and fully fund IDEA’s goals and objectives, but sadly none of these measures have reached fruition.

Despite constant and considerable obstacles, IDEA has been the catalyst for most of the progress our nation has achieved in inclusive education since 1975. After four decades, we’ve learned that there is no shortcut, no quick, cheap or easy fix to educating children with disabilities. Special education is not a place. It is, rather, a system of services and supports designed to ensure an inclusive, general education for every student.

We must meet the needs that exist, rather than manipulate data to reflect desired outcomes. One size does not fit all. Much like educating the underserved students that made the law necessary to begin with, IDEA will only reach its objectives if we provide the resources that teachers, students and parents need to succeed.

In both learning and in public policy, tangible results require a regular, sustained commitment.

Reauthorization of IDEA — including an agreed upon mechanism to fully fund it — provides perhaps the perfect opportunity to improve the law’s implementation and achieve its objectives.

The disabled students first served by the principles and practices affirmed by IDEA were in grade school back in 1975. They are now old enough to be grandparents. Their children, and their children’s children have waited long enough.



An official website of the National Council on Disability