Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975) (Major Acts of Congress)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P.L. 10176.), formerly the Education For All Handicapped Children Act, (P.L. 9442) requires all states receiving federal funds for education to provide individuals with disabilities between the ages of three and twenty-one a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that is designed to meet each child's unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living.
THE CONCEPT OF EDUCATIONAL RIGHTS
The concept of educational rights for children with disabilities embodied in the IDEA is a relatively recent one. In 1958 the Illinois Supreme Court held that a provision of the state constitution calling on the state to provide a system of free schools so all children could receive a good education did not apply to a child described as "mentally deficient or feeble minded." Until 1969 a North Carolina statute made it a crime for parents to insist that a disabled child be allowed to attend school after the superintendent had determined the child should be excluded.
In the early 1970s, however, courts began to accept the principle that children with disabilities had a civil right to receive an education. In the 1971 case Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Pennsylvania, a class action suit was brought on behalf of fourteen mentally retarded students and others similarly disabled, arguing that the state had violated their rights of due process and equal protection by excluding them from public education. In the resulting judicial decree, the United States District Court ordered the state to place every mentally retarded child in a "free public program of education and training appropriate to his capacities." In 1972 the United States District Court in Mills v. Board of Education held that all children with disabilities have a right to an education, that excluding them while providing able-bodied children with public education denies equal protection, and that cost is not a justifiable reason for denying children with disabilities an education.
The PARC and Mills suits were not unique, and by June 1975 forty-six right-to-education cases had been filed on behalf of disabled children in twenty-eight states. The decisions in PARC and Mills, the pending litigation in other states, and statistics documenting the large number of students with disabilities excluded from public education prompted Congress to pass the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975. The EAHCA's significance is often compared with that of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that barred racial segregation in schools.
JUDICIAL REVIEW AND CONGRESSIONAL ACTION
In the 1984 case Smith v. Robinson, the Supreme Court concluded that, for claims involving issues covered under the EAHCA, that act "is the exclusive avenue through which the child and his parents or guardian can pursue their claim." Thus it denied a request for attorney's fees in a proceeding to secure a free, appropriate education for a child with cerebral palsy.
Congress viewed this ruling as a judicial misinterpretation of the law's intent. It responded quickly and decisively by passing the Handicapped Children's Protection Act of 1986 (HCPA). Among other things, this act specifically provided that the parents or guardians of disabled children were entitled to reasonable attorney's fees if they succeeded in making claims based on EAHCA.
In 1990 the EAHCA was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to reflect the preference for the term "disability" over "handicap." This is also the language used in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
FEATURES OF THE ACT
The IDEA governs the public schooling of all children with disabilities who require special education services and are therefore classified as "educationally disabled." The IDEA generally defines a child with a disability as:
a child (i) with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, ... orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and (ii) who, by reason, thereof, needs special education and related services.
The IDEA has three primary purposes:
- To assure that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.
- To protect the rights of children with disabilities and their parents and guardians.
- To assist the states in providing for the effective education of all children with disabilities.
At the heart of the IDEA is Part B, which establishes a set of procedural safeguards to protect the interests of individuals with disabilities from three to twenty-one years of age. Among the most significant of those protections is the requirement that school districts, with the assistance of parents, prepare an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student with a disability. Furthermore, the IDEA:
- Requires that parents be involved in planning an appropriate educational program for their child with a disability
- Specifies that a child with a disability is to be removed from the regular educational environment only when "the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."
Also under the IDEA, states can receive grants from the federal government to develop and implement statewide systems to provide early intervention services for infants and toddlers (from birth to age three) with disabilities.
For children who are between the ages of three and nine, the IDEA provides that a state or local educational agency may broaden the definition of a child with a disability to include a child:
(i) experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in one or more of the following areas: physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development; and (ii) who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.
States have typically responded to this invitation by providing a broader definition only for preschoolers.
THE IDEA TODAY
As a result of the passage and enforcement of the IDEA, nearly all children with disabilities do receive a free public education. The courts have heard cases dealing with questions such as the content of that education, whether services should be offered in a segregated or integrated setting, and whether school districts can exclude children who pose disciplinary problems. Each time that Congress has reauthorized funding for the IDEA, it has tinkered with the discipline rules. The IDEA was reauthorized in 2003, giving school districts additional latitude to exclude students with disabilities who presented significant discipline problems.
See also: AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT.
Colker, Ruth, Adam Milani, and Bonnie Poitras Tucker. The Americans with Disabilities Act, 4th ed. Anderson Press, 2003.