Last month the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) reached an anniversary milestone of 40 years. We have been reflecting on this law, the enormous impact it has had on education, and the daunting task of fulfilling its promise for all students with disabilities.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s inspired parents and advocacy groups to believe that students with disabilities had a right to the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers. As a result, the level of school participation for the disabled increased at both the state and local levels. Despite this progress, by 1970 only 20 percent of students with identified disabilities were being educated in public schools. Many state laws specifically excluded students who were deaf, blind, “mentally retarded,” or “emotionally disturbed” (to use the terms of that era as they were written into the laws) from getting any public education at all. Many students who were turned away languished at home or in institutions.
Massachusetts was the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive special education law, known as Chapter 766. At the federal level, the legal recognition of the rights of students with disabilities occurred in 1975 when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law was modeled after Massachusetts’ Chapter 766.
The law required schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with a wide range of disabilities. It also required that districts provide this education in the “least restrictive environment,” a mandate that opened the doors of mainstream classrooms to the 80 percent of students with special needs who had up to then been excluded. Later this law was given the name we know it by today, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
We are grateful that public education became available to all students 40 years ago, but we also recognize that much more work needs to be done. Because IDEA does not give specific definitions to terms like “appropriate education” and “least restrictive environment,” school districts and parents frequently disagree about the meaning of these concepts. The main reason for this conflict is that funding for special education is so inadequate.
In 1975, Congress authorized the Federal government to pay for 40 percent of all special education costs. Since that time, the government has funded less than 20 percent of these costs. The rest of the money to pay for special education comes from either individual states or local communities.
The intent of IDEA is for schools to provide special education services to students with identified disabilities at no cost to the parents. But this takes money and IDEA has never been fully funded. Thus school districts and parents clash when a child’s needs require expensive services.
For the parents, the stakes are incredibly high, as their child’s future depends on an appropriate education. For school districts with constrained budgets, there is pressure to serve students in the most cost-effective way.
In addition, political groups, at both the state and local level, can apply great pressure to school districts. Some residents in towns complain that their tax dollars are used to pay for the educations of less-deserving children in special education. Funds to train teachers for educating special needs students or to hire highly qualified staff are often limited. As a result, the public school budget sometimes limits special education services to a “one size fits all” approach that ultimately fits no one.
All these factors can influence the education that individual students receive. Parents are frequently unaware of these political pressures and wind up feeling confused and frustrated by the special education experience. The result is that many children with disabilities do not receive an education that is appropriate to their needs.
Ultimately, while the implementation of IDEA is far from ideal, we want to acknowledge the anniversary of the law that opened the doors of public education for the many deserving children who might otherwise have been excluded from the classroom. We also want to reaffirm our goal of educating parents about their children’s rights so that their children might realize the education promised to them 40 years ago. We should remember that everyone benefits when all members of our society receive an appropriate education.
Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves