Back to Special Education

History and Background: Special Education

Photo credit: Christian Horz/Adobe Stock

Back to Special Education

Prior to the 1970s, students with cognitive, physical or other disabilities were not guaranteed seats in public schools. Often, these children were relegated to state institutions where they received little to no educational instruction. Those who did enroll in public school were commonly segregated from their nondisabled peers, including attending classes in entirely separate buildings.

In 1975, the country reversed course with the passage of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (initially called the Education of All Handicapped Children Act), signed into law by President Gerald Ford.

Since that time, special education practices have evolved, but the core tenets of IDEA remain the same: Children ages 3 to 21 with disabilities must be given access to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) and must be served in the “least restrictive setting” (LRE).

In other words, children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) must learn grade-level content alongside their general education peers to the greatest extent possible. In doing so, many special education students are provided accommodations (changes to how students are expected to learn) or modifications (changes to what students are expected to learn).

Special education students may learn in a number of different settings, including a:

  • Self-contained classroom, which typically serves a small group of students with disabilities, usually led by a special educator and paraeducators.
  • resource room, which is a space where students receive special education instruction for part of their day.
  • co-teaching classroom, where a general education and special education teacher work alongside each other instructing both students with and without disabilities.

In addition to special education instruction, children with IEPs may receive “related services,” such as speech-language or occupational therapy, that target an aspect of their disability that makes learning difficult.

Perhaps the most consequential component of IDEA’s history is Congress’ failure to fully fund the law. Though the federal government pledged at the law’s onset to cover 40 percent of states’ additional per-pupil costs, federal funding remains between 13 percent and 15 percent, placing a significant financial burden on state and local education budgets.

In recent years, legislation to fully fund IDEA has not gained traction in Congress.

Other Federal Provisions

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2015, states may continue to use alternate assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. However, doing so must not preclude them from obtaining a regular diploma.

Most significantly, ESSA’s emphasis on achievement gaps among student subgroups means that schools otherwise performing well on state testing can still be targeted for improvement if their special education students fare poorly. One impact of this change may be a trend toward more inclusive teaching practices, with special education students spending more of their days alongside general education peers learning grade-level content standards.

School Choice

Whether school choice programs are serving special education students well — or serving them at all — continues to be a fraught topic.

Due to concerns that public charter schools were under-enrolling students with disabilities, ESSA requires that charters address their recruitment, enrollment and retention practices for children with IEPs. Charter authorizers — the bodies that oversee charter schools — must also monitor how schools serve special education students.

For special education students “parentally-placed” at private schools, including through school choice programs such as vouchers, families may lose their IDEA protections, including the right to due process. Yet, for many parents of special education students, the benefits of a private school education, such as smaller class sizes, outweigh the risks of losing formal IDEA rights.

Separately, if an IEP team concludes that a child’s public school is not meeting the requirements of FAPE and school officials are unwilling or unable to rectify the issue, the local school district must pay for that child to attend a private school where needed services will be provided. These children are protected under IDEA.

Exclusionary Discipline

Federal data continues to show that physical restraint and solitary isolation (“seclusion”) are disproportionately applied to children with disabilities — and at staggering rates. The same holds true for out-of-school suspensions, especially for Black children.

These data points illustrate a longstanding problem faced by special education students and their families: the disproportionate rate at which schools apply exclusionary discipline, which results in children being removed from class and, therefore, deprived of instruction.

Under ESSA, states must plan for how they will support schools in reducing the overuse of harsh discipline, including physical restraint and seclusion, but advocates warn there has been little practical change.


During the disruption wrought to all learning by the COVID-19 pandemic, students with special needs were especially impacted — leaving experts worried, though uncertain, as to how students with disabilities will fare long-term.

Though IDEA’s core requirements remained intact during school shutdowns, remote learning made it impossible for many special education students to receive needed services, from orientation and mobility therapy to community outings critical for building independent “life skills.”

It may take schools several years — and an unknown amount of resources — to make up for lost time.

Updated May 2021.