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IDEA AND NCLB: Intersection of Access and Outcomes

Patti Ralabate
National Education Association
Beth Foley
National Association of State Directors of Special Education


Soon after the federal policymakers crafted what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, its impact was felt in every school district in the country. Its effect was trumped, however, on January 8, 2002, as President Bush signed into law the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known officially as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). The most sweeping reform since the law was first enacted in 1965, NCLB redefines the federal role in K-12 education and seeks to close the achievement gap between children who live in poverty and their peers.

Our Purpose

Both IDEA and NCLB hold a multitude of requirements and expectations for states and school districts. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) and the National Education Association (NEA) have joined together to produce IDEA and NCLB: Intersection of Access and Outcomes to provide guidance to state and school district leaders who will be responsible for the implementation of both laws.

This manual is intended to serve many purposes, including:

  • clarifying which provisions of NCLB reference IDEA and impact the education of students with disabilities;
  • raising key issues that need to be considered regarding the intersection of IDEA and NCLB;
  • exploring how NCLB may affect IDEA's reauthorization.

What is the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

As a result of the passage in 1975 of PL 94-142 (Education for All Handicapped Children Act), the original federal special education law, all children with disabilities in this country were guaranteed the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). By the late 1990s, when Congress revisited how educational programs would be provided to students with disabilities, there had been a major shift in emphasis across the country. Research showed that, for the most part, students with disabilities performed better in general education classrooms, and lawmakers wanted these students to be given appropriate access to the general education curriculum.

Under the reauthorized federal special education law (PL 105-17), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA '97), educators must first consider providing services to students with disabilities within the general education environment. Second, programs for students with disabilities must align with the state or local standards that apply to all students.

In addition, many national leaders felt that the expectations for students with disabilities were not commensurate with those for nondisabled students. Some believed that students with disabilities who were academically behind were actually held to lower standards and instructed in a "watered-down" curriculum. When Congress passed IDEA '97, lawmakers decided it was time to include students with disabilities in the standards-based reform movement. This is one of the reasons why IDEA '97 mandated that students with disabilities must have access to, participate in, and progress in the general education curriculum.

Furthermore, IDEA '97 stated that students with disabilities must be included in state- and districtwide assessments. Lawmakers wanted to measure whether or not students with disabilities were achieving at higher levels and how well they were progressing in the general education curriculum.

What is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) authorizes and regulates the majority of federal K–12 education programs. In 1965, Congress first passed ESEA, the core of which was Title I, designed to improve achievement among poor and disadvantaged students. Congress must reauthorize the law every five to six years; funds are allocated annually.

Over the years Congress has amended and added to the original law in order to raise standards, build in accountability and provide flexibility to schools and districts in the use of federal education dollars so that they can continue to help disadvantaged children.

This most recent reauthorization of the law contains many significant changes. It is based on four basic principles:

  1. stronger accountability for results;
  2. increased flexibility and local control;
  3. expanded options for parents; and
  4. an emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven to work.

What's the difference between "NCLB" and "Title I?"

NCLB has an immediate impact because it is far more specific than past versions of the law and it deals with testing; accountability and adequate yearly progress (AYP); school choice; teacher quality; and paraeducator quality. Although Title I is the largest single program within ESEA and the best known, it is only one of many programs. What makes ESEA '02 different from earlier reauthorizations is that it impacts all schools and teachers, not just Title I schools.

NCLB  is divided into ten sections, or "titles." The section that contains the provisions dealing specifically with "ensuring that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high quality education and reach proficiency on challenging State academic assessments…" is Title I of the statute.

Title I provides for the largest amount of funding, authorizing the allocation of about $13 billion in grants for Fiscal Year 2002 and $13.8 billion for Fiscal Year 2003 to school districts around the country. Other titles deal with issues such as teacher quality, charter schools, English acquisition, Indian education, safe and drug-free schools, parental choice, and civil rights protections.

What are the NCLB issues
of major concern to special education?

The five issues that present major concern to special educators are:

  • assessment;
  • accountability (including Adequate Yearly Progress);
  • sanctions (including School Choice and Supplemental Services);
  • teacher quality; and
  • paraeducator quality.

What's Ahead?

As this document is being prepared, Congress is addressing the reauthorization of IDEA. We anticipate that the implementation of NCLB will directly affect the decisions lawmakers make with respect to amendments to IDEA. This guide is intended to provide direction to state and local leaders as they strive to implement both NCLB and IDEA. At this writing, we recognize that the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) continues to issue policy guidance on selected sections of NCLB. Recognizing that policy guidance is subject to change, we have made some assumptions with guidance from the Department. Throughout this guide, the links to pertinent federal regulations and policy guidance are embedded in the appropriate sections. Also, the Resources section at the end of the guide includes links to all of the relevant federal regulations and policy guidance.

Copyright © May 2003 by the National Education Association
All Rights Reserved.
ISBN: 0-8106-2023-5