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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) refers to the main federal statute that authorizes federal aid for the education of more than 6 million children with disabilities nationally. The statute has two key components: (1) due process provisions detailing parental rights, and (2) a permanently authorized grant program that provides federal funding to the states. States that receive federal funds are required to provide a “free, appropriate public education” to all children with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment.”


Before 1975, a majority of the then almost 4 million children with disabilities were denied meaningful participation in the public education. A federal study relied upon by the law’s authors found that nearly half of these children were excluded entirely from public schools.[1. H.R. Rep. No. 94-332, at 4 (1975)] The rest were either placed in grossly inadequate, segregated classrooms or in regular classrooms without meaningful support.

Spurred by the civil rights movement and the Brown v. the Board of Education decision, parents of children with disabilities turned to the courts to seek redress. Two U.S. District Court cases provided the foundation for a state and local obligation to educate children with disabilities appropriately. In Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Pennsylvania (PA, 1971) and Mills v. Board of Education (DC, 1972), the courts established the right of children with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment by interpreting the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment.

By 1975, more than 30 states had passed legislation guaranteeing children with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.[2. 121 Cong. Rec. 19, 487-91 (June 18, 1975)] These state laws and subsequent court decisions placed a new, heavy financial burden on state and local school districts. In response and to assist states and local communities, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as IDEA) in 1975. The goal of IDEA was to use federal funds to support state and local efforts to educate children with disabilities and to alleviate budget strains caused by additional special education responsibilities. It was not the intent of Congress to cover all the costs of a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities.1 This was later affirmed by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Robinson (U.S., 1984), which described IDEA as “a comprehensive scheme set up by Congress to aid [emphasis added] the states in complying with their Constitutional obligations to provide public education to children with disabilities.”

IDEA Basics

IDEA Part B authorizes the state grant program and stipulates the conditions for receiving funds.

States must provide a free, appropriate public education to all disabled students, which:

  1. Is provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;
  2. Meets the standards of the state education agency;
  3. Includes an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school in the state; and
  4. Is provided in conformity with the Individual Education Program established for the child

States must also educate disabled students in the least restrictive environment, which means with their peers in a normal classroom, to the extent possible.

An Unfunded Mandate?

Although IDEA is underfunded, it cannot properly be described as an “unfunded mandate” of the federal government. IDEA is a discretionary grant program in which states choose to participate. Though none currently opt out, states may forgo federal IDEA funds in order to avoid complying with IDEA’s due process requirements. In fact, New Mexico elected not to receive federal funds when the program was established in 1975. It finally decided to participate in 1984, but states continue to retain the “opt out” option.


See also:

  1. As stated in Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Act (Nov. 29, 1975): “The maximum amount of the grant to which a State is entitled…is equal to the number of handicapped children aged three through 21 in the State…multiplied by the applicable percentage of the average per pupil expenditure in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States for each fiscal year: (1) 1978 – 5 percent, (2) 1979 – 10 percent, (3) 1980 – 20 percent, (4) 1981 – 30 percent, and (5) 1982, and for each fiscal year after 1982, 40 percent.”