All students deserve the opportunity for a great education that meets their needs and opens doors for them. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all students have a right to access the support and resources they need to realize their full potential.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that for the 41 years the law has been on the books, funding has always fallen shamefully short of the goal.
IDEA began in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The law gives children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate education, individually designed for each of them. Through the law, federal funding goes to states and local communities to help meet the educational needs of infants, toddlers, children and youth, in the least restrictive environment possible. The law also provides parents with a voice in their children’s individualized education plan and a means for disputing the plan.
Before this law was enacted, most children with disabilities were either excluded from public schools, or segregated within schools from peers without disabilities. Schools could refuse to educate students that were deemed “uneducable,” a designation often determined by standardized IQ testing.
Students were placed in specialized private schools, or they were institutionalized, or they were at isolated at home. A 1972 Congressional investigation revealed just how bad things were: Almost 2 million children with disabilities were receiving no education at all, while 2.5 million more were receiving a “substandard” education.
With the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the status quo changed. Congress at that time committed to pay 40 percent of the average cost to educate children with disabilities, a level considered full funding. But in the years since the law’s passage, that promise has never been realized; IDEA today covers only about 16 percent of the cost, leaving states and localities to pick up the remaining tab for the nearly 7 million students with disabilities in our nation’s public schools.
This is not good enough. It is not good enough for our students with disabilities and it is not good enough for our public school students as a whole. When funding falls short of its promise, states and local districts are forced to make tough decisions about what—and how much—to cut in other areas to make up for the shortfall – a shortfall created by a Congress unwilling to keep its funding promise.
The proposed IDEA Full Funding Act, introduced in Congress in 2015, would increase spending over a decade to achieve full-funding level, from 16 percent to 40 percent. The Act was referred to committee last April, but this Congress has refused to move it forward. It is unlikely that this Congress will take further action.
We are calling on the next Congress, the 115th, to finally fulfill its promise to all students and fully fund IDEA, as promised 41 years ago. Parents, educators, and school leaders should come together and make sure that we hold Congress accountable. Promises are not good enough. They must do their jobs. Please join me in calling on Congress to fully fund IDEA. Now.