47 Years Later, Are We Delivering on the Promise of IDEA?

IDEA -- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- 1975 > Present
By Valerie C. Williams, Director, Office of Special Education Programs

Forty-seven years ago, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) opened the doors for children with disabilities. At the time IDEA was passed in 1975 (originally named the Educational for All Handicapped Children Act, or Public Law 94-142), Congress found that children with disabilities were excluded entirely from the public school system. The passage of IDEA meant that no more children with disabilities could be turned away from school and required that they have available to them “a free appropriate education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.”

In the years since, we’ve learned that merely opening the school building to students with disabilities is not enough. Now that the doors to school have been re-opened for most children with disabilities since the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take a critical look at how we’re serving students. In 2020–21, the number of children with disabilities who spent 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms reached a high of more than 66%. But further questions must be asked: are their needs being met? Are they being offered meaningful, supportive, safe, and inclusive experiences?

Data collected under the Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) and IDEA Section 618 illustrate both positive and troubling trends in the experiences of and outcomes for children with disabilities nationwide.

The rate of students with disabilities who exit high school with a regular diploma has increased from 52% in 1995 to 72% in 2018. Yet, we see concerning trends when it comes to discipline, restraint, and seclusion:

This data shows that while children with disabilities may be included in general education at higher rates than ever, they’re not always being offered equitable opportunities or reaching their full potential.

This IDEA anniversary, how can we, as a nation that cares deeply about children with disabilities, recommit to expanding meaningful opportunities and outcomes for all children with disabilities?

The U.S. Department of Education (the Department) and the Biden-Harris administration have made their commitments known and will continue to champion equity for children with disabilities. We’re focused on priorities that include increased funding for IDEA, reducing exclusionary discipline, addressing personnel shortages, and strengthening supports for students transitioning out of high school.

In March, the Department issued updated guidance and resources to ensure that COVID-19 mitigation measures continue to address the needs of students with disabilities and to help schools safely open their doors to all.

In July, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued new guidance to help public elementary and secondary schools avoid the discriminatory use of student discipline.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) continues to promote strategies to attract, prepare, and retain effective personnel who have the knowledge and skills needed to provide effective instruction, interventions, supports, and services to children with disabilities.

This work can be hard, but it is necessary, and I believe we are up for the task. It will take all of us — educators, related service providers, families, administrators, and policy makers alike — to make the kind of change children with disabilities deserve.

We’ve learned a lot in the last 47 years, including how to design high-quality instruction, support behavior, educate the whole child, and set high expectations. Let’s be urgent and commit to doing these things for all children with disabilities.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.






  1. As a student who dropped out of high school in 10th grade in 2016, I absolutely was not given the help that I needed. I am autistic, and have ADHD. I also have severe anxiety and depression. Throughout my entire school experience I was tossed from school to school, them labeling me as a delinquent child- my teachers not believing my diagnosis’, and not receiving proper help because “I was too smart” for services that I needed. I only dropped out because my school suggested that I be homeschooled the moment I turned 16. My school gave up on me, and never gave me the help that I needed to succeed, I fell through the cracks. I went on to get my GED with honors and am now an honors student, despite being told I “would amount to nothing and would not be able to make it out in the real world”.

    By the time I received services, they were only for behavior- to figure out how to make me comply and not distract others. No one helped me figure out my emotions, no one helped me heal from any of my trauma, and no one bothered to figure out what the real issue was- despite me being diagnosed with multiple things. Their solution was to give me busy work that was severely below my capabilities, causing me to be bored and having more behavior issues. If I was challenged and given harder work that I would have enjoyed and actually needed to try to do, instead of given work far below my capabilities that I got done in the matter of a few minutes, maybe I wouldn’t have been so bored.

    I am now in college to be a teacher, to hopefully be the teacher that I needed in school for others. Not a single teacher I had was able to help me, or even seemed to care and understand my disabilities- and this was only 10 years ago. We need more education, more funding, and more awareness about the fact that disabled does not mean unintelligent. Students shouldn’t have to be getting F’s to get help and a proper education. Students who act out are not just “troublemakers” and “delinquents”. Students can be getting amazing grades and still need help and other services. Behavioral issues do not mean they have intellectual issues.

    I’ve seen some things get better, but there is so much more that needs to be done and worked on.

  2. Here it is 2023 and I see the same problems presented in the Subcommittee Hearing on Special Education of March 30,1988. I too had disabilities and only discovered when I was 30 years old that from 1st grade to 12th I was given an I.Q. of 97 on the Standardized test. It might seem weird to say this, as in the 1940s they didn’t label you, but passed you on to the next level. No such thing as Spec.Ed. Thank goodness! I say
    this because, when I was in my 30’s I decided to go to college. Of course, after marring a well education man, learning all the skills of being a wife and raising 4 children (reading, math, measuring + other skills) I found I had grown intellectually in confidence. I earned a BS in Psychology and maintained honors, graduating at age 39. When I discovered what I deemed LD in two of my sons it didn’t take me long to find out what could/would not be done to assist them. There, began my battle, which had deemed me not only a whistle blower of the city, but of the state and USGOV. I reference 1988 because after almost 10 yrs. of struggling to receive services, fighting through Due Processes and Appeals all the way to Federal Court on behalf of one son, developing as an advocate for local parents and then a State-wide group of parents who took it to D.C. to finally be heard. As you may know, these types of actions are frowned on by the political section and any of those involved in our success to be heard have continued to pay a heafty price, personally and financially. It breaks my heart to hear that Administrators are still dealing out services as if it were their personal bankroll. Good luck, and personally, I would never again identify my child as learning disabled and turned to the wolves. Sorry, I’m angry, possibly a bit bitter, but not history itself, but mankindas they are repeating their mistakes, as usual. I am so pleased you have this blog to air you differences, but more than likely remarks are received with ho-hums and sail into File 13 never to be seen again. Thank you for listening. I hope this can be publilshed, but there are usually rules that do not allow you to yell to loud….Still hopefull at 85 yrs.

  3. We are able to teach all children. I proved it to myself as an American adult with a disability. Also proved it to countless others as a teacher and former principal. No child should be left behind or excluded. Resources should be provided to parents with children with disabilities and funds and resources provided to teachers with students with disabilities. They should get more not less!

  4. As I read through the comments, the first thoughts I had as the mother of an ASD person was there needs to be what I will call a parent’s union. We must stand united as parents and fight collectively for our children. We must engage and support each other and those teachers and other concerned individuals that are willing to stand with us. I have been advocating for over 25 years and have been somewhat successful navigating the system first for my son and then for my community. Teacher/Parent/Community Partnership is necessary so that all speak in one voice for the good of all the children and all states should provide the same level of support for the students. IDEA needs better implementation.

  5. Thank you for acknowledging the challenges many of us see everyday but don’t have what it would take to put us back on track to meet the needs of special needs students. While there are successes to report, we continue to fail large numbers of children who don’t have adequate advocacy to push folks to meet their needs. We cannot hide behind excuses or explanations for our failures and work smarter. We know what our children need and we have plenty of research to inform our educational practices and policies. Yet, we continue to ignore both. As our Country’s lead special education administrator, please take action to hold schools, districts and states accountable for ignoring the spirit of IDEA. Our most vulnerable students depend on it!

  6. Good Morning,

    I would love to discuss an idea I have to impact the high school experience for people with disabilities; utilizing Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds.

    With gratitude,

  7. Special education is a second career for me. I went into special education to help students with disabilities access the general education curriculum and learn and perform to their full potential. That is the part of my job I love. I love my students and their families. I find that a lot of valuable instruction and planning time is sacrificed in order to navigate the massive amount of administrative responsibilities special education teachers have. In fact, in my state, we are called “case managers” not teachers. The beauracracy of the job has me wondering how long I will last in this field. Just 4 years in and I am burned out.

  8. This is all well and good…but in order to attract and retain related service providers, the DOE needs to pay them in a timely manner. The NYC DOE (Impartial Hearing Order Implementation Unit) has failed to even acknowledge invoices submitted more than 60 days ago. This has been a problem for years, which has not been properly addressed.

  9. Dear Valerie: I was, I am sure, in a Special Ed class in seventh grade, but
    the school did not let us know that was what it was. I got to college in 2009, and had decent grades but almost no contact with my fellow students or professors, and I regret not knowing how to talk to people. I was finally expelled for smoking. I thought, this is unusual. But the security guard was right there, as if my behavior were planned on. I would like to go back to college, perhaps a career in teaching, but I am afraid that I could not keep to a schedule adequately, what with my mental disability, for which I have spent a number of years in an institution. Thank for your enlightening website. IDEA Inspires!

  10. I have a granddaughter in sped and it is so hard to get the school to agree and implement the iep. Each each it is struggle to get get it right and the child has lost the first 1/3 of the school year. If the parents do know the laws the schools lie to them. If the parents do know the laws then they are problem parents. The school need to be held more accountable for their mistakes. Not just to see if they complied with a complaint that was issued but going in if a complaint is issued and making sure all the students at that school with disabilities are being educated correctly. If there is a complaint that has to go to the state then there is a problem at that school.

    • Linda you are absolutely correct. In an Urban School District in NJ this is exactly how they operate the IDEA program. Provide an IEP after the timelines for completing it has expired. Do not provide the items in the IEP by the start date of the IEP. When a parent complains, they Lie, Lie and Lie again. If a parent is adamant, the parent is labeled a troublemaker or combative. When the parent files a complaint with the State the District rushes to the Parent with a Confidential Settlement Agreement. The State follows-up by directing the District to complete a Corrective Action Plan but never follows-up by auditing the District. No one is held accountable at the District or State levels for allowing this mess to happen in the first place. The Federal Government barely intervenes. The Feds need to be more aggressive at the State and District Levels to make sure that the Act is implemented and our most vulnerable students receive the education they are entitled to.

  11. As a parent of a SPED student, it’s very frustrating when my district refuses to follow IDEA, and it’s frustrating that I have to constantly fight for services for my child. Districts do not have a clear understanding of IDEA, and choose to do the bare minimum for students. More districts need to be held responsible for missed services, faulty assessments, and lack of training, transparency, inclusion, and knowledge.

  12. As data confirms, I have been extremely active in special ed since 1977. Presently, its status is a total and tragic mess of misinformation at every step of the process and there is no enforcement of any kind anywhere. Now in my 80s I continue to work for these children. Surely, something can be done to ensure that this vital statute is enforced. Yet, I see and hear nothing.
    There can never be enough advocates or lawyers to take the place of federal oversight. With all that President Biden has on his very full plate, there are enough of us left our here who want to help his administration correct this vast, systemic abuse.

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