The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is 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 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 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.3 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:

  • Is provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;

  • Meets the standards of the state education agency;

  • Includes an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school in the state; and

  • 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.