NCD Executive Summary

Twenty-five years ago, Congress enacted and President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, one of the most important civil rights laws ever written. The basic premise of this federal law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is that all children with disabilities have a federally protected civil right to have available to them a free appropriate public education that meets their education and related services needs in the least restrictive environment. The statutory right articulated in IDEA is grounded in the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under law and the constitutional power of Congress to authorize and place conditions on participation in federal spending programs. It is complemented by the federal civil rights protections contained in section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This report, the second in a series of independent analyses by the National Council on Disability (NCD) of federal enforcement of civil rights laws, looks at more than two decades of federal monitoring and enforcement of compliance with Part B of IDEA.(1) Overall, NCD finds that federal efforts to enforce the law over several Administrations have been inconsistent, ineffective, and lacking any real teeth. The report includes recommendations to the President and the Congress that would build on the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA. The intent is to advance a more aggressive, credible, and meaningful federal approach to enforcing this critical civil rights law, so that the nation’s 25-year-old commitment to effective education for all children will be more fully realized.


In 1970, before enactment of the federal protections in IDEA, schools in America educated only one in five students with disabilities. More than 1 million students were excluded from public schools, and another 3.5 million did not receive appropriate services. Many states had laws excluding certain students, including those who were blind, deaf, or labeled “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally retarded.” Almost 200,000 school-age children with mental retardation or emotional disabilities were institutionalized. The likelihood of exclusion was greater for children with disabilities living in low-income, ethnic and racial minority, or rural communities.

In the more than two decades since its enactment, IDEA implementation has produced important improvements in the quality and effectiveness of the public education received by millions of American children with disabilities. Today almost 6 million children and young people with disabilities ages 3 through 21 qualify for educational interventions under Part B of IDEA. Some of these students with disabilities are being educated in their neighborhood schools in regular classrooms. These children have a right to have support services and devices such as assistive listening systems, braille text books, paraprofessional supports, curricular modifications, talking computers, and speech synthesizers made available to them as needed to facilitate their learning side-by-side with their nondisabled peers. Post-secondary and employment opportunities are opening up for increasing numbers of young adults with disabilities as they leave high school. Post-school employment rates for youth served under Part B are twice that of older adults with disabilities who did not benefit from IDEA in school, and self-reports indicate that the percentage of college freshmen with a disability has almost tripled since 1978.


As significant as the gains over time are, they tell only part of the story. In the past 25 years states have not met their general supervisory obligations to ensure compliance with the core civil rights requirements of IDEA at the local level. Children with disabilities and their families are required far too often to file complaints to ensure that the law is followed. The Federal Government has frequently failed to take effective action to enforce the civil rights protections of IDEA when federal officials determine that states have failed to ensure compliance with the law. Although Department of Education Secretary Richard W. Riley has been more aggressive in his efforts to monitor compliance and take formal enforcement action involving sanctions than all his predecessors combined, formal enforcement of IDEA has been very limited. Based on its review of the Department of Education’s monitoring reports of states between 1994 and 1998, NCD found:

DoED Monitoring Model

The oversight model adopted by the Department of Education is multitiered and multipurpose. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) distributes federal IDEA funding to the states and monitors the SEAs. The SEAs in turn monitor the LEAs to make sure they are in compliance with IDEA. In this tiered oversight model, the same Department of Education office (OSEP) distributes federal funds, monitors compliance, and enforces the law where violations are identified. The politics and conflicts inherent in administering these three disparate functions have challenged the Department’s ability to integrate and balance the objectives of all three.

Data Sources and Summary of Analyses

As mentioned above, NCD found that the most recent federal monitoring reports demonstrated that every state failed to ensure compliance with the requirements of IDEA to some extent during the period covered by this review. More than half of the states failed to ensure compliance in five of the seven main compliance areas. For example, in OSEP’s most recent monitoring reports, 90 percent of the states (n=45) had failed to ensure compliance in the category of general supervision (the state mechanism for ensuring that LEAs are carrying out their responsibilities to ensure compliance with the law); 88 percent of the states (n=44) had failed to ensure compliance with the law’s secondary transition services provisions, which require schools to promote the appropriate transition of students with disabilities to work or post-secondary education; 80 percent of the states (n=40) failed to ensure compliance with the law’s free appropriate public education requirements; 78 percent of the states (n=39) failed to ensure compliance with the procedural safeguards provisions of the law; and 72 percent of the states (n=36) failed to ensure compliance with the placement in the least restrictive environment requirements of IDEA. In the two remaining major compliance areas, IEPs and protection in evaluation, 44 percent of the states (n=22) failed to ensure compliance with the former and 38 percent of the states (n=19) failed to ensure compliance with the latter.

Enforcement Authority

Currently, the U.S. Department of Education has neither the authority nor the resources to investigate and resolve individual complaints alleging noncompliance. The Department does consult with and share some of its enforcement authority with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which has no independent litigation authority. Yet between the date it was given explicit referral authority in 1997 and the date this report went to the printer, DoED had not sent a single case to DOJ for “substantial noncompliance,” and had articulated no objective criteria for defining that important term. The Department of Justice, whose role has been largely limited to participation as an amicus in IDEA litigation, does not appear to have a process for determining what cases to litigate.

Overall Enforcement Action

Despite the high rate of failure to ensure compliance with Part B requirements indicated in the monitoring reports for all states, only one enforcement action involving a sanction (withholding) and five others involving imposition of “high risk” status and corrective action as a prerequisite to receiving further funds, have been taken. The only withholding action occurred once for a temporary period and was overruled by a federal court. Overall, the DoED tends to emphasize collaboration with the states through technical assistance and developing corrective action plans or compliance agreements for addressing compliance problems. There appear to be no clear-cut, objective criteria for determining which enforcement options ought to be applied and when to enforce in situations of substantial and persistent noncompliance.

Recommendations for Strengthening Federal Enforcement

NCD makes the following recommendations to strengthen the capacity of both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to more effectively enforce IDEA:

Personnel Training Needs

Regular and special education teachers in many states are frustrated by the mixed messages regarding compliance from school administrators, local special education directors, state oversight agents, school district attorneys, and federal oversight agents. Teachers ultimately bear the responsibility to implement interventions and accommodations for students with disabilities, often without adequate training, planning time, or assistance. They must function within an educational system that often lacks adequate commitment, expertise, or funding to deliver appropriate services to every child who needs them. School administrators, special education directors, school principals, and agents of federal, state, and local governments must stop working at cross purposes and commit to working together to resolve, not conceal or ignore, these very real problems. If the Federal Government continues to refrain from taking enforcement action in the face of widespread failures to ensure Part B compliance, this atmosphere of questionable commitment to the civil rights of students with disabilities will continue.

Advocacy Service Needs

Pervasive and persistent noncompliance with IDEA is a complex problem with often dramatic implications on a daily basis for the lives of children with disabilities and their families. Too many parents continue to expend endless resources in confronting obstacles to their child’s most basic right to an appropriate education, often at the expense of their personal lives, their financial livelihoods, and their careers. Students are frustrated—their skills undeveloped and their sense of belonging tenuous. When informal efforts have failed to end unnecessary segregation or inappropriate programming for individual children, many have used the rights and protections afforded by IDEA to successfully challenge these injustices. Advocacy and litigation have been essential to ending destructive patterns of recurring noncompliance. Litigation has resulted in important victories for the children involved and better outcomes for other students with disabilities by exposing and remedying systemic noncompliance with IDEA. Yet legal services are often far beyond the financial reach of many families of students with disabilities.

Children with disabilities and their families are often the least prepared to advocate for their rights in the juvenile justice, immigration and naturalization, and child welfare systems when egregious violations occur. Children with disabilities and their families who are non-English speaking, or who live in low-income, ethnic or racial minority, and rural communities, are frequently not represented as players in the process. These individuals must be included and given the information and resources they need to contribute and advocate for themselves.

Recommendations for Training and Advocacy

Accordingly, NCD makes the following recommendations:

Full compliance with IDEA will ultimately be the product of collaborative partnership and long-term alliances among all parties having an interest in how IDEA is implemented. For such partnerships to be effective, all interested parties must be well prepared to articulate their needs and advocate for their objectives. To that end, coordinated statewide strategies of self-advocacy training for students with disabilities and their parents are vital. To make this happen, NCD recommends the following:

A Six-State In-Depth Sample

NCD looked in depth at a sampling of six states, using the last three monitoring reports to assess the compliance picture in those states over time. The first two of the monitoring reports for these six states (covering a period from 1983–1998) included failure to ensure compliance with a total of 66 Part B requirements. Only 27 percent (n=18) of the 66 violations had been corrected by the time of the third report. Based on the reported data, in 73 percent (n=48) of the 66 violations, either the six states still failed to ensure compliance or no compliance finding was reported at all in the last monitoring report.(3)

To date federal compliance-monitoring and enforcement efforts have not fully dealt with the root causes of widespread noncompliance, and children with disabilities and their parents have suffered the consequences. This report details NCD’s findings and recommendations for improving the effectiveness of federal efforts to ensure state compliance with IDEA and related legislation. NCD calls on Congress and the President to work together to address the inadequacies identified by this report so that children and families will have an effective and responsive partner in the Federal Government when they seek to ensure that IDEA’s goals of enhanced school system accountability and improved performance outcomes for students with disabilities move from the language of the law to the reality of each American classroom.

IDEA mandates that school systems respond to the needs of individual children with disabilities, making education accessible to them, regardless of the severity of their disabilities. Teachers today know that education tailored to individual needs and learning styles can make all the difference in the quality of a child’s learning, whether or not she has a disability. Very few public schools consistently and effectively deliver this individualized approach for all children. Accordingly, many children fall through the cracks, as performance on achievement tests across the nation demonstrates. Alternatives to traditional public education such as charter and private schools, as well as political calls for vouchers, indicate growing public dissatisfaction with schools that do not educate all children effectively. IDEA calls for a responsive public education system that meets the individual learning needs of students with disabilities. It also contains a blueprint for the future of public education—where no child is left behind, and all children have an equal opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills they need to fulfill their dreams.

Ultimately, the enforcement of the civil rights protections of IDEA will make a difference to every child, not only children with disabilities. At the national summit on disability policy hosted by NCD in 1996, more than 350 disability advocates called for a unified system of education that incorporates all students into the vision of IDEA. NCD’s 1996 report, Achieving Independence, presents the outline of a system in which every child, with or without a disability, has an individualized educational program and access to the educational services she or he needs to learn effectively. IDEA leads the way in reshaping today’s educational system from one that struggles to accommodate the educational needs of children with disabilities to one that readily responds to the individual educational needs of all children.

  1. During the period between the research conducted for this report and its release, the Department of Education (DoED) designed and began to implement a new “continuous improvement monitoring system” in the fall of 1998. DoED believes its new system will address many of the longstanding problems with compliance monitoring identified in this report. This report does not attempt to assess the effectiveness of DoED’s new monitoring system, in part because it has not been in effect long enough for its effectiveness to be measured fairly.
  2. Every state has a legal obligation to ensure compliance with the requirements of IDEA at the state and local levels. In this report, the term “out of compliance” means that a state has failed to ensure compliance with one or more requirements of the statute.
  3. When no information was provided in a report about a particular requirement, it could mean that the state was compliant, that there was a “single cite” instance of noncompliance, or that compliance with the requirement was not monitored at all.