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Brademas: Congress Knew What It Was Doing

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Former Representative John Brademas, one of the original sponsors of P.L. 94-142 and currently president of New York University, testified before a Senate subcommittee last month at hearings marking the 10th anniversary of the law. The following was excerpted from his testimony.

I realize that the enactment and implementation of P.L. 94-142 have been the subject of some debate and controversy and that there are some who maintain that those of us in Congress did not really understand what we were doing when we wrote the law. Not so.

We who worked in committee and on the floor to fashion the legislation had clear and compelling objectives.

First, there was a pressing problem for which a federal response was both necessary and appropriate. For we were as a nation falling critically short in the goal of providing all handicapped children with the special-education services they needed.

As late as 1973, we heard testimony in committee that our educational system completely excluded 1.75 million handicapped children and provided inadequate educational services to 2.5 million others.

We listened to horror stories from educators, state officals, parents, and representatives of handicapped groups who told us of handicapped children placed in schools but left to languish without help; of children allowed to stagnate in large, impersonal state institutions; of children simply left at home with no chance of an education at all.

A second point, often forgotten in the debate over P.L. 94-142, is that by 1973 the courts had decided that the opportunity for a handicapped child to receive a publicly supported education was grounded in the United States Constitution as a right--and that the states were under an obligation to ensure that right.

Even as we were writing the legislation that was to become P.L. 94-142, 40 cases had been filed in 26 states to ensure that this obligation was being fulfilled.

The federal mandate of P.L. 94-142--"to assure that all children with handicaps have available to them ... a free appropriate public education"--was not, therefore, imposed on unsuspecting states. In fact by 1973, 40 states already had some form of legislation for educating handicapped children. By the time the law was enacted in 1975, 45 states had established, in their own laws, plans to provide full educational services to all of their handicapped children.

The problem, of course, was finding the resources--and the political will--to translate those goals into reality.

At the time we in Congress were studying the matter, the states had a long way to go. In 1971-72, 7 states were educating fewer than 20 percent of their known handicapped children; 19 states fewer than a third. Only 17 states had even reached the halfway figure.

In writing P.L. 94-142, then, its authors intended to:

(1) Make explicit a federal responsibility in respect of the education of handicapped children; and

(2) Assist the states in meeting their own obligations, under their own laws and own court decisions, to educate handicapped children.

If I may further refine the aims of its authors, P.L. 94-142 had six essential objectives:

(1) To guarantee the availability of a free appropriate public education to all handicapped children;

(2) To increase federal assistance in order to help state and local school agencies provide special-educational services to all handicapped children who required them.

Before I recite the other points, let me expand on this second one. P.L. 94-142 channeled federal funds to states and local school systems to help them meet the burden of educating all handicapped children ages 3-21.

The formula devised in P.L. 94-142 based federal payments to states and schools on a percentage of average per-pupil expenditures, with the federal share of the cost of educating handicapped children set to rise from 5 percent in 1978 (when the payments were to begin) to 40 percent in 1982.

The allocation to a state or to a school system would vary depending on the number of handicapped children served. This mechanism was deliberately designed as an incentive to encourage local schools to expand their services to handicapped children as soon as possible and so become eligible for increased federal funds by the time payments were to begin in 1978.

In fiscal 1978, available federal funds were to be equally divided between the states and the local schools. After that date, 75 percent of the money was to be directed to the local school system with the state to keep 25 percent.

Because it costs far more to educate a handicapped child than one with no disability, the legislation specified that federal funds could be spent by the state or local education agencies only for the additional expenses attendant to the higher cost of educating handicapped children.

The law also contained a program of incentive grants to states of $300 per handicapped child served be4tween the ages of 3 and 5.

(3) To ensure the appropriateness of the instruction provided each handicapped child through requiring an individualized education program for each;

(4) To require that for each student, educational services be provided in the least restrictive environment feasible;

(5) To establish specific compliance requirements at the federal, state, and local levels;

(6) To assess and assure the effectiveness of these efforts to educate handicapped children.

In its final form, P.L. 94-142 was the product of the labors of many dedicated legislators, both Republicans and Democrats.

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