The History of Special Education

By Priscilla Pardini

In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, better known at the time as Public Law 94-142, to change what was clearly an untenable situation. Despite compulsory education laws that had been in place nationwide since 1918, many children with disabilities were routinely excluded from public schools. Their options: remain at home or be institutionalized. Even those with mild or moderate disabilities who did enroll were likely to drop out well before graduating from high school.

The Civil Rights Movement and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which extended equal protection under the law to minorities, paved the way for similar gains for those with disabilities. Parents, who had begun forming special education advocacy groups as early as 1933, became the prime movers in the struggle to improve educational opportunities for their children.

Public Law 94-142 proved to be landmark legislation, requiring public schools to provide students with a broad range of disabilities – including physical handicaps, mental retardation, speech, vision and language problems, emotional and behavioral problems, and other learning disorders – with a “free appropriate public education.” Moreover, it called for school districts to provide such schooling in the “least restrictive environment” possible.

Reauthorized in 1990 and 1997, the law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and spawned the delivery of services to millions of students previously denied access to an appropriate education. Thanks to IDEA, these students were not only in school, but also, at least in the best case scenarios, assigned to small classes where specially trained teachers tailored their lessons to each student’s individual needs. Schools also were required to provide any additional services – such as interpreters for the deaf or computer-assisted technology for the physically impaired – that students needed in order to reach their full potential. And, in more and more cases, special education students began spending time every day in regular classroom settings with their non-special education peers.

According to the Department of Education, approximately 6 million children (roughly 10 percent of all school-aged children) receive special education services. Educating those children was expected to cost nearly $51 billion last year, according to the Department of Education’s Center for Special Education Finance, with the yeoman’s share – more than $44 billion – coming from states and local school districts. That, despite the promise made by the federal government in 1975 to cover 40 percent of the additional costs incurred by districts to educate students with disabilities. Even though federal spending for special education continues to rise (from $3.1 billion in 1997 to $6.3 billion in 2001), the federal government has never paid more than 15 percent of the total costs.