Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Rural Special Education and the Limitations of the IDEA

By Lydia Turnage

In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established a substantive right to “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) for children with special needs. Since that time, the right to FAPE has primarily been defined by — and enforced through — the IDEA’s robust set of procedural safeguards and avenues for private enforcement. However, the Act’s emphasis on procedure over substance has prevented the realization of meaningful educational programming for a significant number of special needs students. This Note illustrates the fundamental tension between the IDEA’s substantive and procedural goals by contrasting the legislative and judicial vision of the IDEA with the current state of special education in rural public schools.

Part II gives a general overview of frameworks for policy implementation. Part III provides a background in the evolution of special education law, with a focus on the role that courts have played in the development of special education policy. Part IV argues against the IDEA’s proceduralist approach by demonstrating how this approach fails to account for the challenges faced by rural students at every stage of the special education process, including eligibility for special education, the formulation and enforcement of individualized education plans, and the provision of feasible alternatives to students’ initial public school placement. Finally, Part V argues that the current framework for the provision of special education should be modified to include more effective means for enforcing students’ rights and should incorporate the “inclusive schools” approach, which allows for a more substantive, collaborative, and holistic approach to providing FAPE.

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