Ensuring Equal Education for Youth with Disabilities

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This Saturday Seminar explores successes and challenges in implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that youth with disabilities receive a fair and appropriate public education. The Act provides specific protections for these youth, such as the right to “a public education that meets their needs.”

Prior to IDEA’s passage in 1975, states and municipalities did not have any specific federal requirements for the education of youth with disabilities. Since 1975, the IDEA has grown and now provides special education services to 14 percent of public school students.

A key service provided by the IDEA is student evaluations conducted by “trained and knowledgeable” assessors. Based on these assessments, students deemed eligible are given individualized education plans to fulfill their specific needs. In order to qualify for services, students must fall within one of the 13 covered categories of disabilities.

Although the IDEA has made many improvements since its inception in 1975, some argue that the Act could do more to improve student outcomes. This week’s Saturday Seminar focuses on the achievements, as well as the shortcomings, of the IDEA.

  • “Unfortunately, special education identification, discipline, services, and placement are too often influenced by race.” In an article for the Touro Law Review, disability rights attorney Dustin Rynders argues for educators and policymakers to develop greater awareness of implicit biases in addressing the disproportionately high representation of African Americans in special education. He asserts that despite IDEA’s procedural safeguards for referrals of students to special education, as well as the U.S. Department of Education’s “Equity in IDEA” rules, implicit biases can still influence such referrals and miscategorize African American students.

  • Writing for Temple Law Review, attorney Kevin Golembiewski asserts that narrow judicial interpretations of the IDEA have rendered the legislation a “lost opportunity” to help students with mental health disabilities at school. According to Golembiewski, the potential to assist students with mental health disabilities through the IDEA hinges on the meaning of “educational,” since the statute protects only students with disabilities that affect “educational” performance and requires only that those students be afforded “educational” benefits. Because courts have routinely interpreted “educational” to mean “academic,”  students with mental health disabilities who make academic progress but struggle with interpersonal relationships, community settings, and behavior regulation have no recourse under the IDEA. Golembiewski urges a new interpretation so that students with mental health disabilities may benefit from the Education Department’s substantial IDEA funding.

  • In an upcoming issue of the American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, Margaret Dalton of the University of San Diego School of Law argues that the lack of specificity of IDEA provisions makes them ineffective in practice. Dalton examines the impact of the current, defanged IDEA standards on students, and suggests improvements for when Congress reauthorizes the law.

  • Imagining the world without the Americans with Disabilities Act and IDEA “is to envision continued segregation and marginalization, where human separation based on physical or mental difference alone is tolerated,” wrote Peter Blanck of Syracuse University. In a recent essay, Blanck argues that Americans are better off because of the laws—but, because the laws are sweeping and aspirational, it will take generations to to fulfill their goals.

  • In a recent paper from the College and Career Readiness and Success Center, Jenna Tomasello and Betsy Brand argue that states can strategically implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to improve college and career readiness for students with disabilities. They explain that the  ESSA “provides states with flexibility over the design of their educational systems” and the IDEA “provides protections for students with disabilities.” They argue that states can begin “using and aligning the ESSA and the IDEA to improve services to students with disabilities.” For example, states can combine the ESSA dual-enrollment class support with the IDEA support for students with disabilities between 18 to 21 years old to help students with disabilities “engage with their peers and earn college credit before they leave the more supportive K-12 system.”