Case Overview, Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.



          Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 after the Supreme Court ruled that all special needs children were entitled to a “free and appropriate” education in the public schools. Although IDEA provided some federal funding to pay for special education, most expenses for special education must still be borne by taxpayers in local school districts. Special education is very expensive because it so labor intensive. Extra aides or teachers must be hired to carry it out since students with any kind of learning disability are going to require extensive individualized instruction.

          Although the Supreme Court decision was an impetus for the IDEA program, pressure on local school districts has also come from the parents of children with disabilities and from disability rights groups. They have pushed for “mainstreaming” special needs children whenever possible, believing that placing them in classes with all other students and using aides for supplemental instruction is better than segregating them in their own classes. Everyone agrees that children with disabilities should have a right to the same quality of education as all other students; the controversy comes over how to pay for it and how to structure it. When the Act came up for reauthorization in the 1999-2000 Congress, there was a sharp division over what changes should be made.



          The interest groups involved fall into two broad coalitions. On one side are organizations working on behalf of children with disabilities, such as United Cerebral Palsy, the Association for Retarded Citizens, and the National Down Syndrome Congress. These organizations are passionate defenders of the IDEA in principle but highly critical of its operation. Said a lobbyist for a disability group, "If the ’75 law were fully implemented, things would be fine. But there’s a huge gap in terms of what the law says and how it’s been implemented."

          A second coalition is composed of organizations that represent schools and school administrators, such as the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the Council of the Great City Schools. They are equally critical of IDEA but their dissatisfaction largely concerns finances, believing that schools are forced to pay for too much of the program from local resources and that the federal government doesn’t pick up nearly enough of the overall cost.

          During the 106th Congress, Representative William Goodling (R-PA), a former teacher and administrator, and the Chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee in the House, was the key legislator on IDEA in that body. In the Senate, James Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, chaired the Education Committee. Jeffords felt strongly about IDEA and the failure of the Bush administration to make a bigger commitment to the program’s budget contributed to Jeffords’ abandonment of the Republican party in the 107th Congress. Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott was also a major player as was his chief of staff, David Hoppe. Hoppe is the father of a child with Down Syndrome and he worked hard to try to bring about agreement on amendments to IDEA.




          The disability rights groups made the case that IDEA is a program of good intentions and poor implementation. They believe that schools have not done what they can to fully integrate special needs children into the classroom and worry that unless the enforcement of IDEA is beefed up, disabled children will be increasingly segregated. "I think [there’s] a backlash against the inclusion of disabled children in the classroom," said one lobbyist. They continually argue for full inclusion of students in all aspects of school life. Another issue that upsets these organizations is their belief that some school districts are excessively punitive when they discipline special needs children. “You can’t imagine how controversial” this is, noted the representative of one of these organizations.


          School administrators agree with the disability rights groups that there needs to be more funding for IDEA but agreement on other issues is in short supply. Organizations that represent the schools and administrators are highly critical of IDEA because it created an enormously expensive mandate for the education of special needs children. Yet it left most of the funding up to individual school districts to pay for the cost. Says one lobbyist for educators, “If you place big new personnel expenses with a labor intensive program, then everything else is stretched thin. Everything else is discretionary. . . enriched classes, voke ed. But special ed is not discretionary. The second you don’t offer these services, there’s recourses in the courts.” Schools believe they were sold a bill of goods because the initial expectation was that the federal government would pick up 40 percent of IDEA costs. Currently, however, the federal government pays just 14 percent of special ed expenses.


          The primary obstacle to addressing the concerns of both the disability groups and the education groups is the sheer cost of the special education. The city of Boston spends $130 million of its annual $600 million school budget to educate disabled youngsters. Moreover, as diagnostic tools have improved and a better understanding of disabilities has spread, the number of students receiving special needs education has grown to 6.2 million a year from 4 million in 1975. With many other demands on the education dollar, Congress has been reluctant to fund IDEA at the level that its critics demand. A secondary problem has been the sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats on education issues.



          The primary venue for this issue has been the Congress and the education committees in each house. The relevant advocacy organizations have not had good access to the White House and interviewees said little about the Department of Education.

          Nevertheless, the White House has also been important and Congress has looked to the president for leadership in bridging the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue. With President Bush’s emphasis on education and his apparent willingness to bargain with the Democrats on the issue, it’s possible that the 107th Congress may succeed where the 106th failed. Whether Senator Jeffords defection to the Democrats makes agreement on IDEA easier or harder remains to be seen.


Lobbying Activities and Tactics

          Each side’s lobbying has focused on their sympathizers in the Congress. Their tactics of advocacy have been conventional and both sides have shown a commitment to long-term work on this issue. All the groups concerned recognize that change will be incremental. In the 106th Congress, the most important phase of the lobbying was a convening of the “stakeholders” by David Hoppe. All the relevant lobbies were invited to participate and Hoppe tried to bridge the differences between all the groups so that a bill could be passed. “Hoppe was wonderful—[he] did a wonderful job in negotiating between all the groups,” said one of those involved.

          Hoppe’s work was greatly admired because of the antipathy between the two sides. Those outside the field might think that disability groups and education groups would be working together on special education, but it takes active work on Congress’s part to get these two sides on the same page. For each side there’s not much trust of the other. The disability lobbies “don’t believe we can do anything right,” said a spokesman for an education group. The representative of a disability group said of the educational lobbies, “they went behind our back” on the last round of policymaking. The set of disability groups also has problems within its ranks too as the groups have often been divided over what actions and policies to support. “We eat our young,” said one disability lobbyist wearily.