The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has helped millions of children. It has also bogged down the courts and spawned a whole industry based on paranoia.
Along with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- which guarantees students with disabilities a "free appropriate public education" -- has improved the lives of millions of children and their families. This improvement has not come without costs, however, both financial and human.
Because IDEA and its counterpart statutes were considered civil rights laws, Congress included in them due-process mechanisms allowing for private causes of action to enforce their provisions. The early years of IDEA saw very few such actions, but in 1986 Congress amended the law to also allow the prevailing parents in hearings and court filings to obtain attorneys' fees -- and the result has been predictable. Today, IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA are some of the most litigated federal statutes in existence.
This bitterly adversarial private enforcement system has had a toxic effect on American public schools. Because the law is poorly funded (Congress has repeatedly broken its promises to the states), a school district will often make funding decisions about regular education services with an eye toward whether a disgruntled parent of a disabled student might claim that the decisions negatively impact special education services. School staff feel that parents see them as obstacles, not advocates, to the education that the parents envision -- and parents feel as though schools see them as demanding, insensitive consumers who view school staff as private servants.