How IDEA Fails Families Without Means: Causes and Corrections from the Frontlines of Special Education Lawyering

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The struggle for equal educational opportunity for students with disabilities whose families have few resources is waged daily within the framework of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a complex entitlement statute. Unlike the progress made under the IDEA for their wealthier peers, low-income children are not reaping the educational benefits that effective advocacy has achieved for students with disabilities who can afford determined, skilled and knowledgeable experts to navigate the highly technical mandates of the law.

But in the current landscape of retrenchment, the more smart corrections that advocates and lawyers can formulate, the greater the likelihood that at least some will be adopted when the IDEA is up for its next reauthorization, or enlightened states will seek to level the playing field through legislation, regulations, or adoption of best practices.

This article focuses first on the most salient features of the IDEA that are theoretically designed to protect and assert the rights of all affected children and parents. The authors then analyze how these features disproportionately fail children from families without financial resources. Finally, the authors suggest modest improvements to the legal regime under the IDEA. Given the country's increasing focus on improving educational outcomes for all children, humanitarian impulses will hopefully rise again and recognize that all students with disabilities — regardless of their financial status — are entitled to the full benefits of the law.