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Background of Special Education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The 2004 IDEA Reauthorization Bill

Access to a free, quality education is the key to the uniquely American promise of equal opportunity for all.

This promise was formally extended to children with disabilities with the passage in 1975 of landmark federal legislation now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Public schools across the country today serve more than 6 million youngsters with a wide array of disabling conditions.

The promise made in 1975 remains unfulfilled.

Ever since its initial enactment, the federal law has included a commitment to pay 40 percent of the average per student cost for every special education student. The current average per student cost is $7,552 and the average cost per special education student is an additional $9,369 per student, or $16,921. Yet, in 2004, the federal government is providing local school districts with just under 20 percent of its commitment rather than the 40 percent specified by the law, creating a $10.6 billion shortfall for states and local school districts.

This shortfall creates a burden on local communities and denies full opportunity to all students -- with and without disabilities.

Funding Tops List of Priorities for Improvements

Congress reauthorized IDEA on November 19, 2004. NEA gave qualified support to the reauthorization bill, which includes positive provisions on professional development, paperwork reduction, early intervention and discipline.

Challenges remain, however. NEA continues to push for full funding and to improve the definition of "highly qualified" as it relates to special education teachers. 

In fact, fully funding the federal commitment to special education -- which amounts to just part of the actual cost -- tops the list of key IDEA issues that NEA focused on throughout the reauthorization process. NEA and the major national organizations representing teachers, parents, school administrators and school boards support a proposal that would phase in full funding over the next six years.

While the reauthorized IDEA provides a timetable and a formula for achieving full funding, there is no guarantee that the funds will be appropriated. The funding issue remains on the table and is surely something the next Congress will need to address.

Educators and parents had to re-think how to best teach students with disabilities after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA '97) was reauthorized by Congress in 1997. IDEA '97 focused on a number of then new issues, including:

  • Access –- Assuring that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum and appropriate general education classes
  • Discipline -– Assuring that there are alternative placement options for dangerous students so they can continue their education without hampering the education of other students
  • Assessment -– Assuring the accurate and appropriate assessment of the academic achievement of students with disabilities.

Assessment, Other Challenges Face Special Education

"Special education" issues affect general programs in a number of ways. Over the past 10 years, the number of U.S. students enrolled in special education programs has risen 30 percent. Three out of every four students with disabilities spend part or all of their school day in a general education classroom. In turn, nearly every general education classroom across the country includes students with disabilities. Each school and school district must determine the best way to conduct programs and figure out how to pay for them.

In addition, wanting to measure whether or not students with disabilities are achieving at higher levels and how well they are progressing in the general education curriculum, lawmakers added a requirement in IDEA '97 that includes students with disabilities in state- and district-wide assessments. The accountability provisions of the recently reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) raise even more questions about how to appropriately assess and support achievement for students with disabilities.

But as the nation's parents, citizens, educators and elected officials tackle the problems facing special education, NEA urges everyone to acknowledge our successes. Local public schools are now educating millions of disabled children, and a growing number of them are graduating from high school. Only three decades ago, these same children would have been isolated in separate institutions or simply kept at home, with little or no chance of ever becoming independent, productive, taxpaying citizens.