Publication Date

Spring 2022



Document Type



The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) successfully opened the schoolhouse doors to millions of students with disabilities. But more than forty years after its enactment, the law has proven largely inept at confronting the educational inequities faced by the many students with disabilities attending underfunded, high-poverty public schools. This shortcoming is inconsistent with common conceptions of the IDEA: Advocates and policymakers alike treat the IDEA’s rights and privately enforceable remedies as strong, meaningful tools. This Article theorizes that the IDEA’s under-appreciated failures are overlooked because they are the products of the law’s internal structure, undue judicial deference to schools, and litigation that targets procedural injuries rather than substantive educational practices.

The IDEA’s core procedural rights are meant to guarantee students with disabilities an appropriate education in the most integrated setting possible. Yet, in high-poverty schools, virtually none of the law’s promises are realized. The IDEA’s rights are tethered to an assumption that schools are operating with an adequate level of capacity and proficiency, but under-resourced schools lack the ability to ensure either. As a result, the law’s three core principles—procedural rights, appropriate education, and integrated settings—are badly diminished for students with disabilities in high-poverty schools. Essentially, individual students are unable to leverage the IDEA’s rights for meaningful remedies, and they are thwarted by courts when they attempt broader programmatic change. Meanwhile, advocates’ emphasis on enforcing procedural rights merely strengthens the law’s structural weaknesses. Fulfilling the IDEA’s purpose requires a shift in how courts and advocates understand the law’s limitations in under-resourced schools. It also requires a growth in political will to incentivize and fund local solutions aimed at improved student outcomes. This Article proposes a framework for such a shift.


Originally published in Columbia Human Rights Law Review Volume 53, Issue 2.

Creative Commons “Attribution” License (CC-BY)