Briefing Room


Disabled Education: A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

August 2, 2013 | Faculty

(NYU Press, 2013)

By Ruth Colker

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) promises a free and appropriate public education to all children with disabilities. At first glance, the IDEA is a shining example of law’s democratizing impulse. But, in the book Disabled Education: A Critical Analysis of Individuals with Disabilities Act, Professor Ruth Colker reveals that IDEA contains flaws that were evident at the time of its enactment, limiting its effectiveness for poor and minority children.

Throughout the book Colker, the Distinguished University Professor and Heck Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, uses personal stories of students to demonstrate the inequalities of IDEA. She shows repeatedly that special education is not “special” for many low-income, and often minority, students. There is great variance and subjectivity in the diagnosis and labeling of disabilities, which greatly affects which services students receive. According to Colker, parents often are required to hire advocates and expert witnesses at their own expense when filing due process complaints.

“A shocking, important, and even frightening book that unveils the mistreatment of disabled learners seeking an appropriate education in public school setting,” Sally Shaywitz, M.D., of the Yale University Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, wrote in a review. “We meet innocent children and desperate parents trying to navigate an entrenched bureaucratic and uncaring educational system that is further enabled by inept hearing officers who turn a deaf ear to the needs of the children and to the law. A must read for parents, educators, policy-makers and anyone who cares about the future of education in America. Scientific knowledge has progressed too far to accept this shameful treatment of children from all backgrounds and socio-economic groups; this book is a wake-up call for up-dating policies, procedures and laws affecting children who struggle in school.”

Colker reviews the legislative history of IDEA in detail and provides previously unknown details of the students behind four of the Supreme Court of the United States’ landmark cases in these areas. Colker was able to focus a lot of her work on hearing officer decisions in Ohio, Florida, New Jersey, California, and the District of Columbia because numerous decisions are publicly available in those jurisdictions.

“For anyone intent on our public schools providing equal educational opportunities to students with disabilities, Disabled Education is a comprehensive vision of how far we have yet to come and why,” wrote Paul D. Grossman, Hastings College of Law, University of California, in a review. “For attorneys and advocates, it provides insight into why there is such a headwind against students with disabilities receiving an effective and meaningful education. For judges, it delivers a challenge to reach more just, informed decisions, fully respecting the free appropriate educational opportunity guarantees of the IDEA. For those who teach, develop and enforce education policy through our civil rights laws, it presents a compelling insight into how and why the shortcomings of the special education system fall hardest on poor students, students of color and limited-English speaking students.”

Colker advocates for improved health care services for children younger than school age, which would increase screenings, improve diagnosis, and allow for early intervention. In early childhood programs, Colker believes transportation is also a big issue that must be addressed. Early childhood special education programs typically run only a few hours a day, and most states will not provide transportation to and/or from a child’s regular daycare provider. Once children reach school age, Colker proposes abandoning the current restrictive classification system for one that has a broad, general definition of disability. Colker concludes the funding system must be changed because “children in middle-class school districts should not be receiving more expensive special education services than children in poor school districts.”