Special Education 101

Report Education

Special Education 101

November 5, 2002 7 min read
Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer
Former Senior Education Policy Analyst
Krista is a former Senior Policy Analyst in the Education department.

Link to PowerPoint presentation of this document


  • 1966 Congress amended ESEA to include funds for disabled children and created the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped.
  • 1972 two court cases, PA Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of PA, and Mills v. Board of Education of DC established the rights of equal access and due process for disabled students.
  • 1972-4, faced with litigation, 27 states enacted laws protecting disabled students' rights.
  • 1973 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act sets a broad policy that no institution receiving federal funds, including schools, can discriminate against disabled students.
  • 1975 Congress passed P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Anatomy of the Act

Part A - General Provisions

Part B - Assistance for Education of All Children with Disabilities (state grants, transitional services, and preschool programs)

Part C - Infants and Toddlers

Part D - National Activities to Improve Education of children with Disabilities (research, teacher training and small programs).




  • There are over 6 million children served by IDEA, or 12 percent of all students.
  • There has been a 35 percent increase in the past 10 years in identification.The number of learning disabled students has increased 300 percent since 1976.
  • Half of all special education students are learning disabled.An estimated 80-90 percent have reading problems.
  • Although outcomes have improved over the past few years, there is still much to be done.
  • Disabled youth drop out of high school at twice the rate of non-disabled students.
  • They are less likely to find employment or enroll in higher education after graduation.
  • Black children are twice as likely to be labeled as mentally retarded.
  • Boys are twice as likely to be in special education as girls.
  • The US spent $78.3 billion in the 1999-2000 school year to educate disabled children.
  • Part B grants to state FY2002 was $7.5 billion or roughly 16.5 of APPE in FY2002.
  • President's FY2003 budget allocated a billion dollars more for IDEA state grants, or $8,528,533,000.
  • IDEA funding has increased 227 percent since 1994.
Commission's Report


The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education met with over 100 experts, practitioners, parents, and students.They made 33 specific recommendations around 3 specific themes:

  • Focus on results, not on process
  • Embrace a model of prevention not a model of failure
  • Consider children with disabilities as general education children first
Commission's Report/ Summary of Findings

  • Finding 1:
    [T]he current system often places process above results, and bureaucratic compliance above student achievement, excellence and outcomes.
  • Finding 2:
    The current system uses an antiquated model that waits for a child to fail, instead of a model based on prevention and intervention.
  • Finding 3:
    Children placed in special education are general education children first.Despite this basic fact, educators and policy-makers think about the two systems as separate.
  • Finding 4:
    When a child fails to make progress in special education, parents do not have adequate options and recourse.
  • Finding 5:
    The culture of compliance has often developed from the pressures of litigation.
  • Finding 6:
    Many of the current methods of identifying children with disabilities lack validity.
  • Finding 7:
    Children with disabilities require highly qualified teachers.
  • Finding 8:
    Research on special education needs enhanced rigor and the long-term coordination.
  • Finding 9:
    The focus on compliance and bureaucratic imperatives in the current system, instead of academic achievement and social outcomes.*

*Findings are reprinted from the Commission's report and are abridged for space.


Frequently Asked Questions

"What is full funding?"

In 1975, Congress defined the federal contribution for special education as 40 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure.There was no scientific or policy basis for "40 percent."Conferees chose it while reconciling House and Senate versions of the 1975 law.

"Who is disabled?"

A child is covered by IDEA if he or she has been evaluated under IDEA evaluation requirements, been determined to have one of the listed disabilities (see below), and is in need of special education services because of the disability.


Covered disabilities: Mental retardation; impairments to hearing, speech, or vision; serious emotional disturbance; an orthopedic impairment, autism; traumatic brain injury; a specific learning disability; or multiple disabilities.

What services are covered?

·       speech-language pathology audiology;

·       physical therapy and occupational therapy;

·       psychological services;

·       early identification and assessment;

·       recreation, including therapeutic recreation;

·       counseling services;

·       orientation and mobility services;

·       medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes only;

·       transitional services;

·       parent counseling and training;

·       and other services.


What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

An IEP is a document developed by specialists, parents, teachers, and administrators, establishing annual goals for a child with a disability, and detailing the services that the public agency will provide to, or on behalf of the child.

What is a free and appropriate Public Education?


A free appropriate public education (FAPE) means special education services are provided to disabled students at public expense, under public supervision, and without charge.Such services must be provided in keeping with an individualized education program (IEP) that meets the requirements of law.



Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer

Former Senior Education Policy Analyst