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Special education: History of IDEA

In November 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the legislation now known as IDEA into law. The statute focused singular attention on children with disabilities—and required all schools and districts receiving federal dollars to provide such students with “a free and appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”

The law was a watershed for students with disabilities. Before its passage, many students who needed special services did not receive them. Some states had had laws that allowed them to specifically exclude students who required special services from their schools.

After IDEA, schools and districts had to ensure that all available education services were comparable between students with disabilities and general education students, including classrooms, materials, and other academic programs.

Toward this end, students with disabilities and general education students were to be placed in the same setting “to the maximum extent appropriate.” This policy has been called a number of different things—inclusion, least restrictive environment, mainstreaming—and requires that students with disabilities participate with general education students in both academic and nonacademic services, including meals, recess, counseling, recreation, and physical education. To help students with disabilities function within these contexts, schools and districts must provide supplementary aids, such as a note taker or an interpreter for a student who is deaf.

The law has not been without controversy. Some complain that Congress has not adequately funded the law. Originally, IDEA included a commitment to pay 40 percent of the average per-student cost for every special education student. Until recent passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which increased federal funding significantly, Congress was funding IDEA at less than 18 percent (National Education Association 2006). Other critics complain about the one-size-fits-all policy, saying that it identifies students with uncertain disabilities and makes lawsuits and bureaucratic red tape pervasive (Horn and Tynan 2001). These critics would like to see the program streamlined—and focused more on prevention, intervention, and education outcomes.

 


 

This piece is based on the full examination of special education prepared for the Center for Public Education by Ulrich Boser, a freelance writer and a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report. His work has appeared in SmithsonianSlate, and the Washington Post.

Posted: October 15, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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