Special Education, Poverty, and the Limits of Private Enforcement

83 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2011

Date Written: 2011


This Article examines the appropriate balance between public and private enforcement of statutes seeking to distribute resources or social services to a socioeconomically diverse set of beneficiaries through a case study of the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It focuses particularly on the extent to which the Act’s enforcement regime sufficiently enforces the law for the poor. The Article responds to the frequent contention that private enforcement of statutory regimes is necessary to compensate for the shortcomings of public enforcement. Public enforcement, the story goes, is inefficient and relies on underfunded, captured, or impotent government agencies, while private parties are appropriately incentivized to act as private attorneys general. This Article challenges that argument as not applicable to all circumstances. Instead, it uses the IDEA to identify certain features of institutional design that can make heavy reliance on private enforcement lead to predictable disparities in enforcement in favor of wealthier beneficiaries as opposed to poor beneficiaries, in contravention of the stated goals of some statutes. These features of institutional design include universal rather than means-tested service provision distributed by relying on nontransparent, nonprecedential, private bargaining over a highly individualized system where the contours of the right are determined through significant amounts of agency discretion. Where these features are present, the Article argues, greater attention to public enforcement, as opposed to private enforcement, is likely to be necessary if the goal is to avoid enforcement disparities in favor of wealthier beneficiaries. Alternatively, modifying these features may reduce enforcement disparities and make public enforcement less necessary.

Keywords: special education, poverty, individuals with disabilites education act (IDEA), public enforcement, private enforcement

JEL Classification: K19, K00, K39

Suggested Citation

Pasachoff, Eloise, Special Education, Poverty, and the Limits of Private Enforcement (2011). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 86, No. 4, 2011, Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 11-24, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-125, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1943636

Eloise Pasachoff (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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