Skip Navigation
We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience, provide ads, analyze site traffic, and personalize content. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies.

Special Education

NEA advocates for the fulfillment of a federal funding promise to ensure children with disabilities can access a free, quality education.

Access to a free, quality education is the key to the uniquely American promise of equal opportunity for all. This promise was formally extended to children with disabilities with the passage in 1975 of landmark federal legislation known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That promise–worthy and just–remains unfulfilled.

Key Facts About Funding IDEA

  • Public schools across the country today provide special education services to more than 7 million youngsters–14% of public school students.
  • The federal law has always included a commitment to pay 40 percent of the average per student cost for every special education student. In the 2019 fiscal year, the federal government provided less than half of the full funding level for states.¹
  • The federal share of the average per student cost was 13% in the 2020 fiscal year. This is the lowest share since the 2000 fiscal year.
  • In the school year 2020-21, the federal appropriation was $23.6 billion less than full funding, which states and districts had to cover.
  • This shortfall creates a burden on local communities and denies full opportunity to all students–with and without disabilities.
The federal share of the average per student cost was 13% in the 2020 fiscal year. This is the lowest share since the 2000 fiscal year. Credit: Center for Education Policy & Practice, NEA

NEA Priorities for Improvements to IDEA

Congress reauthorized IDEA on November 19, 2004. NEA gave qualified support to the reauthorization bill, which included positive provisions on professional development, paperwork reduction, early intervention and discipline. However, challenges remain. NEA continues to push for:

  • full funding for special education
  • improving the definition of "highly qualified" as it relates to special education teachers, and
  • more accurately measuring special educator workloads.

In fact, fully funding the federal commitment to special education — which amounts to just part of the actual cost — tops the list of key IDEA issues that NEA has focused on since the 2004 reauthorization process. NEA and the major national organizations representing teachers, parents, school administrators and school boards support a proposal that would phase in full funding.


Educators and parents had to re-think how to best teach students with disabilities after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA '97) was reauthorized by Congress in 1997. IDEA '97 focused on a number of then new issues, including:

  • Access –- Assuring that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum and appropriate general education classes
  • Discipline -– Assuring that there are alternative placement options for dangerous students so they can continue their education without hampering the education of other students
  • Assessment -– Assuring the accurate and appropriate assessment of the academic achievement of students with disabilities.

Current assessment and support challenges

"Special education" issues affect general programs in a number of ways. Over the past 10 years, the number of U.S. students enrolled in special education programs has risen 30 percent. Three out of every four students with disabilities spend part or all of their school day in a general education classroom. In turn, nearly every general education classroom across the country includes students with disabilities. Each school and school district must determine the best way to conduct programs and figure out how to pay for them.

In addition, wanting to measure whether or not students with disabilities are achieving at higher levels, and how well they are progressing in the general education curriculum, lawmakers added a requirement in IDEA '97 that includes students with disabilities in state- and district-wide assessments.

The accountability provisions of the recently reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) raise even more questions about how to appropriately assess and support achievement for students with disabilities.

But as the nation's parents, citizens, educators and elected officials tackle the problems facing special education, NEA urges everyone to acknowledge our successes. Local public schools are now educating millions of disabled children, and a growing number of them are graduating from high school. Only three decades ago, these same children would have been isolated in separate institutions or simply kept at home, with little or no chance of ever becoming independent, productive, taxpaying citizens.

1. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Funding: A Primer. Congressional Research Service, 2019.


redfored protest

Help us help our students.

All students deserve a quality public education. They need advocates who are informed, engaged, and insistent. Help us protect funding for special education.
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.