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IDEA History

posted Mar 12, 2013, 12:22 PM by Brenda Guynes
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 re-authorization 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.

-Brenda Guynes
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