Originally enacted as the Education for AllHandicapped Children Act, the Individuals withDisabilities in Education Act of 1975 was intendedto guarantee each disabled child access to a freeappropriate public education. The act is arguablythe high-water mark of federal control ofAmerican education, regulating nearly all aspectsof special education law and policy. IDEA is duefor reauthorization this year.
With annual expenditures of about $50 billion,including $6 billion to $7 billion in federalcontributions, special education is as troubled asit is costly. The occasion of IDEA's reauthorizationhas been marked by proposals intended toalleviate IDEA's myriad, universally acknowledgedproblems while improving educationaloutcomes for disabled children. For better or forworse, IDEA reform will dictate special education'sprospects for the future.
IDEA's central failure is the complex andadversarial process required to determine the sizeand nature of each disabled child's entitlement tospecial services. Recognizing that the educationalneeds of disabled children differ widely, the actmandates that each child's "individual educationplan," or IEP, be created out of whole cloth by hisor her local school district in a series of meetings.
The process mandated by the statute has notonly failed to achieve its purpose of ensuring anappropriate education to each disabled child. Ithas marginalized the parents it was intended toempower and has created a barrage of compliancedrivenpaperwork so overwhelming that specialeducators are driven to quit the profession.
Worse, IDEA's adversarial nature has underminedrelationships between parents and educators,pitting parent against school in a bitter struggleover limited resources. Because the act's proceduresrequire savvy, aggressive navigation, its benefitsflow disproportionately to wealthy families,often leaving lower-income children underserved.
IDEA has also precipitated a financial crisis inschools. Regulatory compliance and litigation costsrelated to IDEA's failed dispute resolution frameworkare soaking up precious resources needed foreducation, while IDEA funding rules have encouragedincorrect labeling of many students as disabled.
The battle between parents and schools overeach child's educational plan must end with adecisive victory for parents in the form ofportable benefits. Special education should bereformed to allow parents to control how theirchild's educational dollars are spent in the publicor private school of their choice.