Forty Years Later

Public Law 94-142, “The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975,” passed not long after I began reporting on education, and it became the first issue that I dug into deeply on my weekly NPR series. A lot has happened since then, much of it very positive, which makes the 40th Anniversary an occasion to celebrate–while continuing to search for ways to improve the learning opportunities for kids with special needs.

The term “Handicapped” was soon cast aside, and “Special Needs” became the term of choice. Before long “Handicapped” became the field’s “H word,” never to be spoken in public. Word games ensued. Some preferred “Exceptional” as the descriptive adjective–and in fact it had been the Council for Exceptional Children in Washington that pushed hardest for passage of legislation in the 1970’s. Militants often referred to non-disabled children (and adults) as “temporarily able-bodied,” but that did not catch on.

Although the vote in the House and Senate had made it veto-proof, PL 94-142 was not universally popular. In a break with tradition, President Gerald Ford refused to allow photographers into the room when he signed the bill. He was upset and angry about the precedent the law was setting–requiring services but not providing the money. Somewhere in our video archive is an interview with then former President Ford, in which he reflects on the ‘unfunded mandate’ of PL 94-142, which required schools to serve these students but did not come close to providing the funds. He predicted–correctly–that this would become an albatross around the necks of school boards.

PL 94-142 required that every child who was diagnosed and labeled be provided with an IEP, an “Individualized Education Plan,” that would serve as a road map for their education. That essential provision also created a bureaucratic situation, sometimes a nightmare, for parents and administrators.

The new law also created, almost overnight, a new area of specialization for teachers and a growth industry for schools of education. Even today, it’s the easiest area of education to find a job.

The law and its successors have created other problems, most notably the “lawyering up” of parents determined to force public schools to pay for expensive private school education for their children with special needs. It’s not a ‘cottage industry’ for lawyers, the special education attorney Miriam Freedman notes, but a “mansion industry.”

The new law required that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” a reaction to the widespread practice of isolating and segregating these students. However, the practice of ‘mainstreaming’ in regular classrooms has created its own issues, and many teachers continue to complain that they have not been adequately trained to work with this population of students.

Complaints and problems aside, PL 94-142 and its successors have transformed the lives of millions of children for the better. Because the 1975 law allowed states to ‘phase in’ their compliance, I was able to visit a few states before they began providing services. That allowed me to report on how these unfortunate children, and their families, were dealt with by public schools.

And it was a nightmare. No other word suffices. In New Mexico, for example, severely physically disabled children were locked up, with little or no consideration for their mental capacity. Some desperate families kept these children at home, rather than condemn them to life in an institution.

Before 94-142, schools did not have to make any special effort to educate children with disabilities, and I visited middle school and high school classrooms where a disabled child was simply assigned to draw pictures or weave bracelets while the other kids studied American history or French. Those days are over, or should be anyway.

PL 94-142 and its successors have created opportunities and occasions for those without disabilities to learn about differences, to learn empathy. That’s no small thing.

A nation and its people can be judged by how it treats its least fortunate. In this respect, the United States deserves some credit.

Like this country, public schools will always be a work in progress. It’s easy to criticize schools, and often the criticism is warranted, but it’s important to stop every once in a while and give ourselves credit for doing the right thing.

The 40th Anniversary of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other iterations is one of those occasions. Well done, America. (Now let’s do it better!)

8 Responses to “Forty Years Later”

  1. James Harvey 29. Jul, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Wonderful commentary, John. I just “tweeted” it. My old boss, John Brademas (D-IN), was champion of P.L. 94-142 in the House of Representatives, along with Al Quie (R-MN). In the Senate, “Mac” Mathias (R-Md), Alan Cranston (D-CA) and Claiborne Pell (D-RI) led the way. I didn’t know President Ford refused to let cameras in the room for the signing ceremony. The legislation, while never fully funded, was badly needed since state and local educators often refused to enroll students with disabilities on the grounds these students were too expensive to educate.

    As you say, P.L. 94-142 and its successor, IDEA, have had a huge impact. By chance, some weeks ago I looked up the enrollment of students with disabilities before P.L. 94-142 was enacted and compared it with enrollment today. The earliest enrollment date I could find was 1976, the year after enactment but before 94-142 really took hold. There were 3.6 million children with disabilities enrolled in public schools in 1976; there were 6.4 million in 2012.

    The raw statistics define similar remarkable progress over the years in the number of students speaking languages other than English at home (thank you, Bilingual Education Act and Plyer v. Doe, 1982), the number of high school women participating in sports and the proportion of women earning advanced degrees (thank you Title IX), and the proportion of adults with high school diplomas — accompanied by dramatic declines in dropout rates (thank you Title I).

    The data simply do not support the assertion that none of these programs worked. They worked. And they worked very well.

    • John Merrow 29. Jul, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

      I appreciate more of the history, and I hope some of our readers are younger and will be receptive.
      Regarding Bilingual Education, my three now grown children are fluent in Spanish (other languages too) because they attended Oyster Bilingual School in Washington, a public school that embraced two languages. When done well, bilingual education is a dual language program that does values fluency in both English and Spanish.

  2. Renee @TeachMoore 29. Jul, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    Thanks for this brief history, John. Despite the many problems and misapplications of this law over the years, as the parent of two special needs children (and now two special needs grandchildren), I appreciate how much MORE difficult getting education for my children would have been without it.
    We can and should do better, but we can start by not allowing what has been gained so far to be rolled back, at least not without a fight.

  3. Ken Bernstein 29. Jul, 2015 at 8:29 pm #

    Okay, I am doing this from memory. First, the law in theory said the Federal government would provide 40% of the average additional costs imposed by it. With the exception of the two years of stimulus spending, the federal share was never even close. Other than those two years (FY2010 and FY2011?) I believe the high was 19% in FY2005. When Jim Webb was running for Senate, I calculated what the shortfall was just in Virginia, and while I no longer remember the number (and do not have access to my files because I am way from home teaching in a summer program) it was well over $100million. I believe the historical average was <15%.

    States/districts were supposed to provide the services, and assuming 60% of the average additional costs, not 80% or more. That left them with three choices:

    1. Raise local taxes to cover the additional burden
    2. Cut other things to fund the obligation
    3. Ignore the responsibility and hope one did not get sued.

    Option three realistically only made sense in rural school. It did not matter if the children were in high poverty inner city schools, because most metro areas quickly developed lawyers who specialized in such cases. I experienced that in a brief stint in an inner city middle school where 94% of the children were receiving free/reduced meals.

    This has long been the unfunded mandate in education.

    The intention of the law was correct.

    The implementation is still incomplete, and will be so until the funding is properly addressed.

  4. John Merrow 29. Jul, 2015 at 11:38 pm #

    The implementation of the law has been uneven, to put it mildly, and in many places African American kids, particularly boys, have been labeled and then isolated. Labels have been differentially applied based on race and gender in some districts. I should have noted this in the original post..

  5. George Dewey 30. Jul, 2015 at 12:07 am #

    Although I am not armed with the data of your other responders, I offer this single anecdote as one of many examples in my experience as classroom teacher (31 years) in Fairfax County, VA.

    Two years ago I had an Hispanic student who was confined to a wheel chair (spina bifida). After signing a special leave form for her to travel to Hilton Head, she explained it was not for a vacation, but for a tennis tournament (which her doubles team actually won)! Later, in class she demonstrated the special chair and racket she uses as she lobbed several shots against one of our walls during a physics lab. She graduated this spring, leaving her chair behind, using a walker to get to the principal for her diploma, and actually walking down steps gripping the hand-railing with iron determination.

    What this shows me is the difference toughness in attitude and determination can make on the part of the disabled student, plus a supportive school environment (yes, IEP’s and all, but also from fellow classmates), and encouraging parents. Laws can enable, but, for me, the commitment and persistence of individual teachers, administrators, and community can make such triumphs succeed. We all need to work at this, too.

    • John Merrow 30. Jul, 2015 at 8:50 am #

      George, this story deserves retelling because it captures what the law intended and demonstrates that a law by itself cannot achieve much; only with courage, empathy, common sense and decency can it achieve what its writers intended.

      I am certain that the lives of everyone involved were changed for the better.

      Thanks for sharing

  6. susan Landmann 30. Jul, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    For 27 years I taught in a large school system where Special Ed was hit or miss, mostly miss.
    But I considered myself an advocate for my children and unfortunately, that sometimes got me in trouble.
    Carlos was a hispanic child in my prek class. He had enormous needs. I recorded all my observations, he went through a battery of age appropriate testing, and the school system awarded him a bilingual lawyer. But months went by and there was no action. I knew Carlos would not make it in a mainstream program
    Finally a court date was set. Still, the lawyer did not respond. So it was left to me to represent Carlos and his family.
    A week later I received a telephone call:
    Ms. Landmann,” said the voice on the other end of the line, ” Do you know you could be fired for going to court to represent Carlos H. instead of representing the school system?
    “I understand that Mr. P.— But it that’s your choice, I feel I will have done my job.”

    I wasn’t fired and Carlos was awarded full tuition to the school for children with severe disabilities.
    His case had languished for months. His file of observational notes was complete. The district Bilingual lawyer never showed up again.
    I had to jump in.

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