Special education for students with disabilities: analysis and recommendations

Future Child. Spring 1996;6(1):4-24.


Twenty years ago, the educational rights of students with disabilities were dramatically and firmly established in law and practice. Prior to that time, many students were refused enrollment or special educational services. As recently as 1973, at least one million students were denied enrollment in public schools solely on the basis of their disabilities, and at least two million others were not receiving an education appropriate to their needs. Although every state has provided some form of special education throughout this century, these services were largely at the discretion of local school districts. Only since a federal court case in 1972 and the passage of federal legislation in 1975 have all states been mandated to provide a free, appropriate public education to all students with disabilities. Today, as Parrish and Chambers point out in this journal issue, special education for students with disabilities is the largest categorical program in public schools, costing an estimated $32 billion. Since the passage of Public Law 94-142 in 1975 (later retitled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or the IDEA), the number of elementary and secondary students receiving special education has increased from 3.7 million to 4.6 million, increasing also from 8% to 11% of all students in public schools. According to Parrish and Chambers, the population of students eligible for special education is expected to continue to rise. The IDEA governs the educational rights of individuals from birth to age 21, though only students in elementary and secondary school are addressed in this journal issue. The IDEA allowed access to the public schools for many students who had previously been denied enrollment. The IDEA has also been given partial credit for decreasing the rate of institutionalization of individuals with disabilities. Before the IDEA, many parents had the sole responsibility of meeting all the needs of their severely disabled children 24 hours per day; once schools began to provide extensive services to students with severe disabilities, more families were able to avoid institutionalization. Under the IDEA, states and local districts were given a mandate to provide specialized educational programs to students with special needs, and students and parents were given a mechanism for enforcement of their rights. In a 1989 survey, 94% of parents of students with disabilities agreed that services for these students had improved since the implementation of the IDEA. Yet special education today is widely criticized as expensive, ineffective, inadequately coordinated with regular education, and/or culturally biased. The National Association of State Boards of Education has recommended radical reduction in the size of special education. Special education also has its champions, who argue that many students perform better academically and have better self-esteem when provided with special services, often in a separate setting. This analysis addresses five questions concerning special education under the IDEA: (1) Why are so many students considered disabled? (2) What are the educational needs of students with disabilities? (3) How should appropriate, individualized services be funded? (4) Are the IDEA's procedural protections necessary? (5) Can regular education meet the needs of more students?

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Disabled Persons / classification
  • Disabled Persons / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Disabled Persons / statistics & numerical data
  • Education, Special / organization & administration*
  • Education, Special / statistics & numerical data
  • Eligibility Determination
  • Financing, Government
  • Humans
  • Mainstreaming, Education
  • United States
  • Vocational Education