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The History and Reauthorization of IDEA

If your child is in special education, you'll want to learn about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) - past, present, and future!

By Brett Schaeffer

If your child has a learning disability (LD) or other disability, and is eligible for special education services, you'll want to be familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA. By law, Congress must re-authorize this legislation every five years. When it was reauthorized back in 2004, it came under scrutiny - and was in the news - once again. Let's take a look at how IDEA first came about.

Access: Opening the Door to Special Services

Imagine it's 1967 and you're back in second grade - the same grade your son is in now. Like your son you're a whiz at math, but you struggle mightily when reading a story or writing a simple sentence.

Unlike your son, though, you wouldn't have had the benefit of any special education services. In 1967, if you were attending a public school, such services didn't exist for kids who would today be identified with learning disabilities. You would've likely suffered through a difficult education experience, struggling to advance to the next grade.

Not until 1969, with the passage of the Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act (included in Education of the Handicapped Act of 1970, Public Law 91-230, Part G), did federal law mandate support services for students with learning disabilities. Even then it took six years for Congress to pass the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975. That law officially recognized "specific learning disability" (SLD) as a category eligible for special education funding and service.

Under the law, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a specific learning disability was defined as "...a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia." (Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(10))

That definition still stands today, and children with learning disabilities comprise nearly half of the 6.3 million students in special education programs throughout the country.

According to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, 2.9 million students with LD, ages 3 to 21, were served under IDEA during the 2000-01 school year. That's more than three times the number of students served during the 1976-77 school year.

Assuring Access to the General Curriculum

With access to special education services mostly solved, parents and LD advocates changed focus in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More students with LD were being identified and were receiving special education services. Too often, though, those students were not being taught the school's general curriculum. This shortcoming was addressed with the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA when an emphasis on access to the general curriculum was added to the statute.

This change "reminds everyone that the expectation is that every child - including LD kids - is going to participate in the same curriculum and have the same academic objectives," says Linda Lewis, coordinator of federal policy and programs for the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Lewis is also a member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities' Professional Advisory Board.

Comments from readers

"What day month and year was this article published?"
"My grandson, age 9, is in the second grade at a private school for LD/ADHD students. This school is very expensive. He was first diagnosed with a severe LD in kindergarten. His mother, a single parent, sold her home to be able to put him into this school. My question is: Where is the financial help for these LD children? There seems to be help for the college bound with LD. But we need help getting our little one through each grade with the hopes of one of him getting to college. My daughter is stressed beyond belief. I worry for her health. I can only do so much. Can you respond to this e-mail with maybe some answers as to what can be done in the way of financial help?"