2020 Presidential Candidate Survey on Disability: Special Education

Due to the enactment and implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), high school graduation rates for people with disabilities have increased 45% since 1995, with an associated decrease in dropout rates. Similarly, enrollment in college has doubled for students with disabilities. Nevertheless, local school districts struggle to serve students with disabilities, and those seeking higher education continue to face enormous barriers to success.

Q: How would you propose to strengthen the IDEA when it is reauthorized so that it truly fulfills its stated purpose of preparing children with disabilities for post-secondary education, employment, and independent living, including children with the most significant disabilities?

Joe Biden

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed into law in 1990, promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. As president, I will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.

But it’s not just about money. As president, I will appoint a Secretary of Education with a true commitment to the full inclusion of students with disabilities. I will make the enforcement of  IDEA’s promise of a free appropriate public education, a major priority through the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. And, as my administration works with Congress on reauthorizing the IDEA, we will advance the fundamental promise of educating all our children in the least restrictive environment. Inclusion isn’t just the law – it’s who we are as a nation. As president, I will make it happen.

What’s more, I will fully implement the special education disproportionality regulation that we put in place during the Obama-Biden Administration. Students with disabilities deserve equal access to the general education classroom, and should have meaningful recourse when subject to disproportionate disciplinary practices or segregation from the general education classroom.

The Obama-Biden Administration’s Department of Education worked to keep students with disabilities safe in their classrooms by providing resources on the use of seclusion and physical restraint and by issuing guidance to public schools regarding the limits required under Federal law on the use of seclusion and physical restraints on students with disabilities. I will build on this work by continuing to protect our students from dangerous physical restraint and seclusion.

*The following responses are from candidates who are no longer running

Michael Bennett

As a former school superintendent, Michael believes IDEA is one of our country’s core civil rights laws.

He was proud to sign the Senate amicus brief in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Dist. RE–1 to ensure the law was interpreted as it was intended, and that students with disabilities have access to an education that meets their needs and best prepares them to succeed.

Michael believes that while have made tremendous progress since IDEA was passed, we have a lot more work to do.

First and foremost, it is past time that Congress fulfills its promise to fully fund IDEA.

In addition, Michael will work the disability community, with students and with schools to craft improvements to the law that address the current shortcomings in district implementation and compliance, and to ensure that the training and transitional provisions meet the needs, standards, and expectations for this modern economy.

Michael believes that the federal government has an essential responsibility to ensure every student with a disability, in every classroom, in every district, and in every state has the chance to have a rewarding future and he commits to living up to that responsibility under his presidency.

*No Longer Running

Cory Booker*

We have an obligation to provide students and teachers the resources they need to be successful. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed almost 45 years ago with a promise that the federal government would provide 40 percent of the funding needed to educate children with disabilities — a promise that it has yet to fulfill. In fact, the federal government has never provided even half of the 40 percent they promised, forcing states and local school districts to cover the remaining costs. It is long past time for the federal government to make good on that promise by reauthorizing and fully funding the IDEA.

*No Longer Running

Steve Bullock*

I have called for the federal government to meet the original promise of IDEA through full funding. As a governor, I know first-hand how local school districts are limited by the lack of full funding, as states are often called upon to make up the gap. Beyond the money, it is vital that any reauthorization of IDEA support the smart deployment of AT in schools.

Additionally, I have called for an increase in the availability of high-quality accessible child care, but as we seek to increase the availability of child care, it is critically important that we have sufficient early intervention providers so that children with disabilities are given every opportunity at an early age.

* No longer running

Pete Buttigieg

I would focus on ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to all of the educational opportunities that students without disabilities have. This includes implementing both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), expanding access to mental health services for children and adolescents, disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, and expanding opportunities for competitive integrated employment.

One of my key priorities will be to implement measures for the federal government to consistently meet its funding requirements under the IDEA. The federal government committed to paying 40% of the average per student expenditure for special education with the passage of the IDEA. Since then, Congress has not met that 40% commitment even once. Instead, the current federal funding only covers around 15% of the average per student expenditure. I will work with Congress to provide full funding for the IDEA.

*No Longer Running

Julian Castro*

To ensure that children with disabilities are afforded equal educational opportunity, my People First Education plan will fully fund and expand disability programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act to ensure all schools receiving federal funding are equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities. My plan will support increased flexibility and individualized education plans for all students who could benefit from them, partner with schools to establish a pathway to meaningful employment after graduation from school for students with disabilities. Additionally, I will work to ensure all education professionals have access to meaningful, ongoing professional development to enhance skills and strengthen the learning of students with disabilities.

*No Longer Running

John Delaney

I support reauthorizing IDEA and increasing funding to meet the federal government’s full commitment to support education for students with disabilities, and I would provide additional resources to help schools develop individualized learning programs for students with visual or hearing disabilities. I also have an education proposal that includes universal Pre-K for every four-year-old child and two free years of community college or technical training, which will help every American develop the skills they need for the economy of the future.

*No Longer Running

Tulsi Gabbard*

Despite significant gains in graduation rates and college enrollment since the passage of IDEA, students with disabilities still face significant barriers to quality education in many districts. My administration will improve data reporting from states to identify statistical disparities regarding specific conditions — this is the first step in identifying which students face the most significant barriers. The next step is working with states to set goals to improve outcomes and offering federal support in the case of funding gaps. Bolstering special education will be part of the comprehensive education plan I put forth in the coming months.

* No longer running

Kirsten Gillibrand*

As president, my administration will fully fund the IDEA. I have sought significant funding increases for IDEA in the Senate, including writing a letter in 2018 asking my colleagues to agree to provide the highest possible funding. Falling short of our obligations is unacceptable, and too often that failure means that people with disabilities don’t get the support they need and fall through the cracks.

* No longer running

Kamala Harris*

I believe we have a responsibility to ensure all of our students have access to high quality education. To do that, our schools must be equipped to spark a love for learning in children with disabilities and prepare them for post-secondary education, employment, and independent living. That means finally meeting the federal government’s commitment to fully fund the IDEA. I am a co-sponsor or the IDEA Full Funding Act in the Senate because I believe it is simply unacceptable that the federal government has failed to meet the needs of our children. As president, I intend to make it right and sign the legislation into law.

*No Longer Running

Jay Inslee*

IDEA has had success in changing education outcomes for children with disabilities, but it has been hampered in part by underfunding. I want to see a fully funded IDEA, and in Washington state I have been pushing for increased funding for special education services. This year, the Legislature increased funding for special education by $155 million, which I supported, better supporting local school districts with the funding they need to offer appropriate services to students with disabilities.

I believe in fully funding education, and that includes fully meeting our obligation to provide students with disabilities with a Free Appropriate Public Education, and as president, will support reauthorization and strengthening of IDEA

Our efforts can’t stop at IDEA, however. Other crucial issues must be addressed, such as how to better prepare students to succeed in the workplace and transition out of school into healthy lives as adults. As president, I will work with stakeholders to ensure that students with disabilities are supported throughout their academic career.

* No longer running

Amy Klobuchar

Senator Klobuchar believes that the federal government must meet its commitment to fully fund the IDEA so students with disabilities receive the services they need. Senator Klobuchar has consistently supported fully funding the IDEA, and in March of 2018 she asked for a $275 million increase in IDEA grants to states. As President, she will make sure these grants are fully funded moving forward.

*No Longer Running

Beto O’Rourke*

Beto will begin by fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to ensure students with disabilities receive the services and specialized instruction in grades K-12 that they deserve, so they can graduate, and are ready to transition to post-secondary education, which will prepare them for competitive, meaningful employment, and independent living. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also provides accountability and protections for students with disabilities to support their right to receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, with access to services and supports to meet their individual needs. To help meet these goals, we must also ensure the safety and protection of all students with disabilities in every state from the dangerous practices of seclusion and restraint by prohibiting their use through federal legislation. Furthermore, Congress must reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) with key provisions, including those programs which provide inclusive higher education for students with intellectual disabilities, teacher training, and preparation programs for special education, as well as improvements to accessibility for students with disabilities.

* No longer running

Tim Ryan*

Investing in our students is an investment in our future, and this is true for all children. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) made incredible progress, but there is still work to be done. I believe we must strengthen IDEA to address the continued challenges for local school districts and those seeking higher education. It starts by investing in our public schools and supporting our teachers so that they have the resources needed to provide educational programs to meet the needs of students with disabilities. And for higher education, we must continue to make that accessible for anyone who wishes to pursue it.

* No longer running

Bernie Sanders*

Over 40 years ago, the federal government made a promise to school districts around the country to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education. It is an understatement to point out that the federal government has not come close to keeping this promise.

Because of inadequate federal funding, property taxes around the country are increasing while kids with disabilities are not getting the attention they deserve. The IDEA helps about 6.5 million children with disabilities, but because of a chronic lack of funding there is a shortage of special education teachers and physical and speech therapists, and the turnover rate among them is incredibly high.

As president, Bernie Sanders will:

– Provide mandatory funding to ensure that the federal government provides at least 50 percent of the funding for special education.

– Guarantee children with disabilities an equal right to high-quality education by enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

– Increase educational opportunities for persons with disabilities, including an expansion in career and technical education opportunities to prepare students for good-paying community employment.

– Address the shortage in special education teacher recruitment, training opportunities, workload, and pay for special education teachers.

– Triple Title I funding to ensure students with disabilities are able to get quality education regardless of the zip code they live in.

* No longer running

Joe Sestak*

Most crucially, we simply need to fully fund IDEA. It is an important law, but it is a major unfunded mandate as well. The federal government is supposed to fund 40% of the differential cost of teaching students with disabilities. Yet we have never even met 20% of the differential cost (we reached 19% in 2010). Increasing funding to meet the 40% mandate will support students with disabilities from kindergarten to the workforce. We must also increase funds for educational outreach, in particular to parents of students with disabilities and to schools, so that all students eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) know that they are eligible. Parents also must know that they are entitled to due process hearings if a student is not getting the individualized services they need and deserve. And funding must be added to hire social workers who can advocate on behalf of students with disabilities who have no parents, or whose parents are unable to effectively advocate on their behalf, with schools, government authorities, and medical professionals.

* No longer running

Tom Steyer

All students deserve the right to learn. The first step is to fully fund IDEA and re-commit to the original promise of federal funding to schools. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that our public schools are welcoming and well funded, with structurally sound facilities that are accessible for students with disabilities. That way, these students can be fully included in classrooms and can access the education they need to thrive.

*No Longer Running

Eric Swalwell*

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act has been a groundbreaking law providing access to educational opportunities for students with disabilities, but it is time to update this law to help ensure these students’ rights are adequately protected in the future.

Congress promised in 1975 that the federal government would pay 40 percent of IDEA funding; it has never come close to fulfilling that promise, and today pays less than half that percentage, forcing states and local governments to make up the difference. I support legislation to fully fund IDEA to support and assist states and school districts so they can provide the support and tools students and families need to succeed. Every child deserves an equitable education.

Beyond fully funding the law, modernizing IDEA should include:
• Ensuring access to the general curriculum.
• Ensuring early screening and intervention for all children.
• Streamlining the process for students who qualify to receive benefits.
• Cutting bureaucratic red tape and paperwork for teachers.
• Improving accountability and monitoring programs.
• Retaining more special education specialists to provide a range of programs and services.
• Addressing chronic shortages of special education and related services and faculty at higher education institutions.

* No longer running

Elizabeth Warren

My first job out of college was teaching special needs kids in a public elementary school. I know how important it is for our public education system to create opportunities for all kids, including students with disabilities. That’s why I’m a co-sponsor of the Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers Act, which would fully fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and make sure education is a priority in the federal budget.

Second, to close the achievement gap, we must make sure our public education system creates opportunity for all our kids, including students with disabilities. That’s why I passed an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization to ensure that students with disabilities are able to use assistive technology to access assessments. It’s also why I introduced the bipartisan AIM HIGH Act to create guidelines for accessible instructional materials on college campuses. I recognize that many students face special obstacles to their education, and I will always stand up for programs that help to level the playing field.

Third, we must make sure people with disabilities are not held down by student loan debt. That’s why I’ve called for something truly transformational – up to $50,000 in student loan debt cancellation for 42 million Americans and universal free public college. My plan would provide total debt cancellation to more than 75% of student loan borrowers. And it would make college truly universal – not just in theory, but in practice – by making higher education of all kinds more inclusive and available to every single American, including people with disabilities, without the need to take on debt to cover costs. I’ve also introduced legislation to prohibit the Treasury Department from forcing borrowers who are severely disabled from paying taxes on student loans that have been canceled, which would save them thousands of dollars.

Finally, we need to do everything we can to ensure that all students, regardless of means or background, have access to career training that will provide a path to a good-paying job and a middle-class lifestyle. That’s why I introduced and passed the Free Career and Technical Education for High School Students Act in order to direct federal funding streams toward reducing or eliminating out-of-pocket costs associated with Career and Technical Education programs for high school students, including students with disabilities. If classes that prepare high school students for college are free, then career training classes that prepare students to enter the workforce should also be free. I have also introduced bipartisan legislation that would expand education savings accounts to cover apprentices’ out-of-pocket costs, such as for equipment and books.

*No Longer Running

Marianne Williamson*

Marianne Williamson supports strengthening the IDEA with increased resources in terms of funding and concurrent education about its benefits when it is reauthorized so that it truly fulfills its stated purpose of preparing children with disabilities for post-secondary education, employment, and independent living, including children with the most significant disabilities.

*No Longer Running

Andrew Yang

IDEA’s planning resources should be extended through a child’s early life through Pre-K, during a universal Pre-K system. Individualized Education Plans should include family involvement similar to IFSPs. We should also invest heavily in programs that investigate alternative and more productive means of dealing with behavioral issues rather than suspension/expulsion, to keep children with these issues in school while teaching them to deal with any negative thoughts or impulses.

*No Longer Running


Disability Rights Center – New Hampshire is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers for people with disabilities across New Hampshire. DRC is the federally designated protection and advocacy agency for New Hampshire and has authority under federal law to conduct investigations in cases of probable abuse or neglect.

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