When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975, the country needed prodding. Many children with handicaps were excluded from participation in public education, a fact underscored by federal court rulings at the time.
Schools in the United States have come a long way since then. Impelled by federal law, educators have made extensive efforts to accommodate students hampered by a wide range of disabilities. Aides or tutors are often provided to help particular students. Individualized education plans are mandated. "Special education" has become a professional calling.
But all this has a weighty price tag. On average, a year of public education costs around $6,000 per student. When a student has special needs, that figure is multiplied. And the definition of "disability" has broadened. In some states nearly 18 percent of students are classified in that category. Federal dollars help offset a small part of the cost, but special education as a proportion of overall education spending has been ratcheting up for years.
The costs are not just in dollars. In some cases, students with disabilities present severe discipline and safety problems. The wear on classmates and instructors can be great. But current law makes it hard to remove such a student from a classroom.
These two issues - putting some boundaries around cost and giving school officials more leeway on discipline - are driving congressional revision of the 1975 act. That revision probably won't go as far as critics of the law hope. Nor should it be as slight as many advocates for special education might like.
Yet some adjustment is clearly needed. And Congress is right to search for a fair revision of this two-decade old law.