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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004
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Impact and Relevance to 6 Million
Students with Disabilities and Their Families


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Every child deserves the chance to learn. When Congress signed what is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) into law in 1975, it acknowledged the fact that too many children with disabilities were either receiving a substandard education or were not attending school at all. The then-new law made a promise that every eligible child with a disability could go to school and be provided with the individualized special education and related services necessary to learn and make progress alongside their brothers, sisters and neighbors. The law provided states the opportunity to accept federal funding to provide a free, appropriate public education in the Least Restrictive Environment to eligible children with disabilities.

Our members work to implement and enforce IDEA’s protections each day and know that when the law is implemented as intended the results are nothing short of transformative.  However, far too many students and families cannot realize IDEA’s promises.  Congress committed to providing states funding up to 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure; to help offset the cost of educating children with disabilities. In the 43 years since the law’s passage, Congress has never lived up to that funding promise and schools must rely on local and state dollars to make up the shortfall. To date, Congress is only paying 16 percent of special-education costs.[1]  

The result of Congress’ inaction and the state’s legal obligation to educate students – who may require a range of services and supports – is that states and school districts strain to uphold a law that was designed with great purpose and great promise. Although resource challenges exist, after nearly 45 years of implementation, both the purpose and the promise of IDEA continue to be worthy of our respect, attention and advocacy.

Today, there are nearly 1.5 million infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities[2] receiving early intervention and/or preschool education and 6.6 million children with disabilities attending the nation’s K-12 public schools.[3] States have embraced both research and best practice that show children that need early intervention and support will have better long-term academic, social and emotional outcomes if they are identified and served early.[4]


Great Intent: Mixed Results

A key aspect of IDEA is to ensure that every student has access to and makes progress in the general education curriculum.[5] Since the last amendments were made to IDEA in 2004, Congress has consistently sought to align all other education laws to reinforce that every student must be held to high standards and prepared for college and/or career.[6]  The result of the alignments in federal law, in conjunction with best practices being carried out by diligent school districts/schools has resulted in improvements for students that forty years ago would have never been contemplated. Students with a wide range of disabilities, including intellectual disabilities are making gains in reading.[7] This is the purpose of the IDEA – to provide for the education of all children with disabilities[8] and the promise is that all students with disabilities, no matter their challenge, can graduate ready to enter post-secondary education and/or gain career skills that lead to an independent and meaningful life. For some, the promise of IDEA has become a reality.

  • Placement – Students ages 6–21 who spent 80 percent or more of their time in general classes in regular schools increased from 33% in Fall 1990 to 62% in Fall 2014.[9]
  • Graduation – Nearly 65% of students with disabilities graduated with a regular diploma, up from 60% in 2011.

o   The trend follows a pattern similar to the graduation rate for all high school students, which is 83%.[10]

o   Graduation rates vary considerably among states ranging from a high of 81.9% in Arkansas to just 29% in Nevada.[11]


While certain outcomes for students with disabilities overall continue to improve, school-level data continue to show that secondary students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at higher rates (18%) than their general education peers (10%)[12]. If you are a Black male with disabilities attending secondary school, you are suspended at nearly twice the rate (33.8%) of your white male peers with disabilities (16.2%).[13] Schools also continue to abuse and overuse aversive practices such as secluding and/or restraining students with disabilities at much higher rates than their peers. Of the 100,000 students restrained or secluded, 69,000 are students with disabilities representing 67% of students subjected to these practices.[14] And while progress has been made since 1975 to both provide equal access to a public education and to assure positive academic outcomes for students with disabilities, concerning gaps remain. Special education students are general education students first and this is a civil rights issue. 


For some students the use of the word “special” has come to mean an educational system marked with low expectations and diminished opportunities.

  • Not reading at grade level – 37% of 8th grade students with disabilities scored at or above basic in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress, compared with 81% of students without disabilities[15]
  • Living in poverty33% of parents of youth with an IEP reported receipt of federal food benefits in 2012 as compared to 16% in 2010.[16]
  • Unemployed – 17.9% of persons with a disability were employed, compared to 65.3% of persons without a disability.[17]


Game Changer

In 2017, a landmark decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court has the potential to create a groundswell change for all children with disabilities in how schools develop and provide services under a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). The high Court overturned the Tenth Circuit’s decision that Endrew, a child with autism, was only entitled to an educational program that was calculated to provide “merely more than de minimis” educational benefit and ruled: [t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The Court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”[18]

Chief Justice John Roberts articulated: “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. The IDEA demands more.”[19] As a result, when the federal district court applied the new standard articulated by the Supreme Court, to the exact same set of facts using the new standard, the federal district overturned its original finding and ordered the school district to reimburse the parents.[20] For parents who have had to fight for their child to receive even the most basic of services, whose child’s annual IEP goals remain stagnant from year to year, or who know their child is not being held to high expectations, this new standard upholds both the purpose and promise of IDEA.

Parents Are Key to the School Team


picture of asian mom and dad with childIDEA requires the child’s parent, or legal guardian to be an integral part of the IEP team.[21] Parents play a vital role as they know their child best and can help the team decide the specially designed instruction, supplementary aids, related services and accommodations a child needs to succeed in school. Since the law’s inception, parents and schools have engaged in a process to develop a child’s IEP that in the best of circumstances assures the child receives the services required but in the worst of circumstances (e.g. Endrew) can result in a legal battle over the appropriateness of the child’s IEP.  Importantly, in the unanimous Endrew F. decision Chief Justice Roberts noted, IDEA requires IEPs to be developed with expertise from schools and input from parents. Such balance of power, though always intended under the IDEA, seemed only possible previously by initiating a due process hearing.

The IDEA encourages a collaborative process through which parents and school districts work together to develop an IEP for children with disabilities.[22] However, Congress understood that parents have every reason to advocate vigorously on behalf of their children and included procedural and due process protections as part of the law’s promise. In the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA, Congress reiterated, “[t]he due process procedures in IDEA are the only recourse parents have if they believe a school is not providing the services and support their child needs in order to learn.”[23] Therefore, an impartial due process hearing provides a powerful incentive to comply with the IDEA.[24]


Due Process: Critical Protection That Very Few Pursue 

Disagreement over student placement or methodology to instruct, intervene or support a child’s disability abound, and for many the mechanisms provided by IDEA to resolve this natural tension have been nothing short of a blessing. According to national data, a very small number of families use the IDEAs procedural safeguards. In fact:

  • The number of due process hearing requests have declined by 18% between 2004 and 2010.
  • The number of fully adjudicated due process hearings has declined by 68% between 2004 and 2010.
  • The actual number of hearings has decreased from 1.5 hearings per 10,000 special education students in 2004-05 to 0.7 hearings per 10,000 students in 2011-12.
  • The percentage of due process complaints resolved without a hearing has grown from 54% to 70% over six years.
  • In both 2003 and 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that “the numbers of formal disputes are generally low, and states are using mediation and other strategies to resolve conflicts.”[25]

There are many dedicated professionals, who truly want to support and teach a child with a disability, who are frustrated by how the system prevents them from providing the instruction or service the student needs. Without the parent's right to compel the school district to meet their child's needs, many students with disabilities will continue to receive inadequate educations.

As one parent noted, “Getting schools to actually deliver the services promised in an IEP often depends on parents and their skill at monitoring, negotiating, and advocating. If that doesn’t work, they can file an appeal—a complicated, lengthy process—or sue.”[26] School superintendents have publicly summed up the dilemma by stating, “If we want to see better results for special-ed kids, better outcomes, better IEPs, greater adherence to the law, we need the dollars.”[27]    



Young adult with down syndrome graduatingThe rights and protections provided under the IDEA have created opportunities and changed lives.  However, for many, the gap between the promise and the reality are still far too great.   The goals of the IDEA are to support each eligible student, through the spirit and the letter of the law, to be as independent, as self-sufficient, as self-advocating as possible, and to enforce their right to a successful education.

Families need to have access to the full spectrum of tools and processes available under the law to assure their child those rights. Schools need to have available full funding and resources necessary to ensure each child has the opportunity to succeed. The United States must continue to uphold and renew its commitment to providing a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities. The next generation must be educated so that they may participate in the nation’s economy, add their creativity and perspective to the American enterprise, pay taxes and live independent and meaningful lives. 


Additional Resources


[1] Broken Promises: The Underfunding of IDEA, 2018, National Council on Disabilities

[2] IDEA Parts B and C Program Data, 2015, Early Childhood and Technical Assistance Center, U.S. Department of Education

[3] The Condition of Education, 2017, National Center for Educational Statistics

[4] The Science of Early Childhood Development, 2008, InBrief, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University http://developingchild.harvard.edu/download_file/-/view/64/ and The Foundations of Lifelong Health are Built in Early Childhood, 2010, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University http://developingchild.harvard.edu/library/reports_and_working _papers/foundations-of-lifelong-health/

[5] 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c).

[6] Title IV of the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act emphasizes the provision of services to students and youth with disabilities to ensure they have opportunities to receive the training and other services necessary to achieve competitive integrated employment. (See: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/rsa/wioa/transition-of-students-and-youth-with-disabilities-from-school-to-postsecondary-education-and-employment.pdf.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, reauthorized in 2016 as the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to set challenging academic standards in reading, math, and science that must apply to all public schools and all public school children. States must also assure that only a very small number of all students (1 percent or fewer) are assessed against alternate academic achievement standards. Such students must be students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. (See: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-12-08/pdf/2016-29128.pdf)

[7] J. Allor, P. Mathes et al., Is Scientifically Based Reading Instruction Effective for Students With Below-Average IQs?, 2014, Journal for Exceptional Children

[8] 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (d).

[9] The Condition of Education, 2017, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Losen et.al. Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?, 2015, UCLA Civil Rights Project https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/are-we-closing-the-school-discipline-gap/AreWeClosingTheSchoolDisciplineGap_FINAL221.pdf

[13] Ibid.

[14] Civil Rights Data Collection, 2013-2014, U.S. Department of Education https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf

[15] National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2015, National Center on Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main2013/2014451.aspx

[16] National Longitudinal Transition Study-2012, Preparing for Life after High School: The Characteristics and Experiences of Youth in Special Education, Volume 3: Comparisons Over Time, 2018, https://www.mathematica-mpr.com/our-publications-and-findings/publications/preparing-for-life-after-high-school-the-characteristics-and-experiences-of-youth-vol-3

[17] Labor Force Characteristics, 2016, Bureau of Labor Statistics https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/disabl.pdf

[18] Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1, 137 S. Ct. 988  https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-827_0pm1.pdf

[19] Ibid. 

[20] http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.copaa.org/resource/resmgr/docs/2018_Documents/Endrew2018.02.12.Opinion_and.pdf

[21] 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(B).

[22] 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d).

[23] H.R. Rep. No. 108-77 at 379.

[24] S. Almazan, A. Feinstein, D. Marshall, Quality Education for America s Children with Disabilities: The Need to Protect Due Process Rights, 2017, Child and Family Law Journal, Barry School of Law, https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/copaa.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/docs/accessible_2017/Quality_Education_for_Americ.pdf

[25] Ibid (citations omitted).

[26] T. Thompson, The Special-Education Charade: Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, are one of the greatest pitfalls of the country’s school system, 2016, The Atlantic at: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/the-charade-of-special-education-programs/421578/

[27] L. McKenna, Is the Bar Too Low for Special Education?, 2017, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/01/is-the-bar-too-low-for-special-education/514241/


ESSA Amendments to IDEA

In 2016, Congress, through the Every Student Succeeds Act made certain changes to sections 602 and 611 through 614 of the IDEA including: updating and revising definitions and cross references; and, moving the qualification requirements for special education teachers, including the requirements regarding alternate routes to special education teacher certification, from 34 CFR §300.18(b)(1) and (2) to 34 CFR §300.156(c)(1) and (2). Consequently, the IDEA regulations in Parts 300 and 303 were amended to reflect the conforming changes and to ensure consistency between Title I of the ESSA and the IDEA Parts B and C regulations. Read the 
final regulations and review a chart summarizing each change from ESSA to IDEA. 


Key Issues 


Fully Fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

When Congress passed IDEA in 1975, it committed the federal government to helping to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education by funding 40 percent of the additional cost to educate IDEA-eligible students. To date, the federal government has never fulfilled its commitment to fully fund the IDEA. In fact, it’s never covered more than 16 percent of these costs. This lack of federal investment, in combination with the recent education budget cuts at the state and local level, has made it increasingly difficult for schools and early education programs to continue to provide the services that young children and youth with disabilities need and to which they are legally entitled. Funding for IDEA helps foster excellence for all students. Maintenance of Effort (MOE) requirement which exists to ensure states maintain approximately the same spending levels on education from year to year must be maintained. Without MOE, states and districts will be free to slash education budgets while remaining eligible to receive federal funds.

Parents must be Meaningful and Equal Partners in the Development of Individualized Education Program

Congress’ has repeatedly found that "the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by … strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home.” § 601(C)(5). IEP meetings are the primary venue for parental participation. Many issues have stifled parent ability to be full partners in the process and must be corrected.

Protect Parents’ Due Process Hearing Rights

Parents are the primary enforcers of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) through private actions. Therefore, it is important to protect and strengthen due process hearing rights so parents are on an even playing field and children with disabilities may receive the free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to which they are entitled.

Transition from High School

IDEA requires that youth age 16 and older have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with a post-secondary transition plan that is updated annually. In some states, transition planning may begin as early as age 14.  Federal law mandates that transition planning must help students and their families think about their life after high school and identify long-range goals that design the high school experience so that students gain the skills and connections they need to achieve these goals.


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