Special Education: 45 Years Later

It can be easy to take for granted the institutions that function in the background of our everyday lives. Like many others who work in the field of special education, I take pause this month to reflect on the 45th Anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975. IDEA was a landmark civil rights measure designed to create equitable access to the education for children with special needs. Before IDEA, students with physical and mental disabilities were regularly excluded from public schools. In 1970, only one in five children with disabilities had access to a quality education. As a nation, we have come a long way.  

While most people may not be familiar with the pillars of IDEA, the concept is one we should all celebrate. It was a promise to children, families, school districts, and states that would provide a brighter future for children with disabilities.  

But it is a promise that has not reached its full potential. At the time the statute was enacted, Congress promised to pay 40 percent of the National Average per Pupil Expenditure. Today, this figure sits at about 13 percent. In fact, funding for IDEA has never surpassed 20 percent. 

IDEA was a significant step in the right direction, no doubt. The year after the legislation became law, more than 3.5 million students were served and just 45 years later, that number now exceeds 7.5 million. However, with insufficient federal funding, the onus has been increasingly placed on states and local school districts to fund special education.  

This makes it much more difficult to ensure what Congress intended to accomplish with IDEA in “…bringing children with disabilities out of the shadows and into American schools where their gifts and strengths can be recognized.” With proper funding, states and local districts are empowered to help all students reach their fullest potential.  This is why ACCEL is proud to advocate at the federal level for full funding for IDEA, each year, in collaboration with the National Association of Private Special Education Centers (NAPSEC). 

It is important to recognize that these funding needs are increasing over time. Less than 1 percent all students being served under IDEA in 1999 had an autism diagnosis. In less than a decade, figure has increased to 9 percent. The Special Education Expense Project (SEEP) notes that it costs 3.9 times more to educate a student with autism than a general education student.  

And while significant progress has been made toward protecting the rights of students with disabilities, many challenges still exist. “Research clearly indicates that students of color are disproportionately educated in under-resourced and underperforming school districts. Studies further show that students with disabilities in low-income or racially diverse districts are far less likely to receive the specialized supports and services they need,” according to Danielle Johnson, Executive Director of NAPSEC. “While significant progress has been made since 1975, we must remain committed to address the challenges that still exist, ensuring that all students have the supports they need to reach their full potential.” 

ACCEL is proud to be playing an active role in assisting in the development of another country’s special education infrastructure. In September 2019, we opened the first holistic special education center in Saudi Arabia and today, serve approximately 100 students and their families. For many of these students, this marks the first time in their lives they are being served in a classroom; for the first time in their lives they are being offered a quality education.  

The impact of the IDEA has been felt throughout the United States. And we are proud to use this model to  guide and inspire others to better serve students with disabilities. 

Raymond Damm

Raymond Damm is CEO of ACCEL, a nonprofit organization that provides innovative, individualized and comprehensive educational, therapeutic, vocational, behavioral and life skills training for children and adults who have special needs.

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