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!)

3 thoughts on “Forty Years Later

  1. 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.


    • 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. 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.


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