Ten years ago, under the threat of a Presidential veto, the Congress overwhelmingly passed a law whose complexity and detail encompassed a simply worded intent--to provide all handicapped children a "free, appropriate" public education.
Known as the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, or P.L. 94-142, it constituted a "massive change of public policy unlike anywhere else in the world," said Edwin Martin, assistant secretary of the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services from 1969 to 1979. "It was a commitment of an important educational and philosophical kind, embracing and affirming the human rights of disabled people."
The law, which was five years in the making, created such controversy that before signing it, President Gerald R. Ford read aloud his original veto message--agreeing only to sign the law after it became apparent that both houses of the Congress would override a veto.
"Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the federal government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains," President Ford said. "There are ... features in this bill which I believe to be objectionable, and which should be changed. It contains a vast array of detailed, complex, and costly administrative requirements which unneccesarily assert federal control over traditional state and local government functions. It establishes complex requirements under which tax dollars would be used to support administrative paperwork and not educational programs."
Today, many of those involved with the writing of the law or charged with carrying it out, call it a success. Its main intent, they say, has for the most part been realized.
But some of the concerns voiced by President Ford in November 1975 linger--in particular, the paperwork burden and cost and the complexity of the law's evaluation, placement, and due-process procedures.
"There is too much reliance on P.L. 94-142 to resolve all problems, when it really should be used as a baseline," says Frederick J. Weintraub of the Council for Exceptional Children and one of the main architects of the law. "It doesn't teach kids. It has nothing to do with quality. All the individualized education plans in the world will not assure a kid's learning. A lot of energy goes into compliance, but it doesn't necessarily go into what needs to be done beyond compliance. There is something in me that would like to declare the entire nation in compliance and get on with it."
"There is now a whole generation of people--professionals and parents--who are what I call the post-P.L. 94-142 generation," he adds. "They're not people who say, 'Gee, I remember what it used to be like'; they're not people who say 'God, my dreams have been met.' They're people who say, 'Now I have some dreams, and P.L. 94-142 is our reality, not our dream."'
The question for the decade ahead, he suggests, will be "the degree to which government at all levels can begin to reinforce and build on those dreams."--at