10th Anniversary of P.L. 94-142: A 'Visionary' Law That Has Worked

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Ten years ago, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142), requiring the public schools to identify and then to provide special-education services to youngsters with educational, developmental, emotional, or physical disabilities. The law was hailed as a handicapped children's Bill of Rights, outlining a process whereby all children, regardless of the severity of their handicap, were to be assured the same educational rights and privileges accorded to their nonhandicapped peers: "a free, appropriate, public education."

What constitutes a "free, appropriate, public education"? Who is entitled to receive these special services? In the broad view, P.L. 94-142 is very clear:

Every child who is "mentally retarded, hard of hearing, deaf, speech-impaired, visually handicapped, seriously emotionally disturbed, orthopedically impaired, [medically] impaired, or ... [who has a] specific learning disability" is entitled to "specially designed instruction ... to meet [his or her] unique needs ... and related services as may be required to assist [him or her] ... to benefit from special education."

But as one probes deeper into the law, looking for guidance on specific issues and on the treatment of specific handicapping conditions, what was clear in the distance becomes clouded under the microscope. How are handicaps defined? What type of specially designed instruction is needed? Which related services are required? Answers to these questions cannot be found in the law, or even in the rather detailed regulations that were promulgated in 1977.

The creators of P.L. 94-142 did not specify how the intent of the law was to be carried out in individual cases, perhaps in part because the philosophy underlying the legislation precluded such a mandate: How can curriculum and services for handicapped children be uniformly prescribed if we simultaneously require that these be tailored to the individual child's needs? Thus, specific services were not mandated; instead a process was mandated through which all concerned could join forces to determine what is appropriate for the child.

The results of this process have been documented, at least in general outline, in annual compliance reports to Congress. Today, 11 percent of all elementary- and secondary-school students are receiving specialized instruction or services under the law. During the 1983-84 school year, 4.3 million children were enrolled in special education, an increase of 15 percent since the law's 1977 implementation. Thousands of severely handicapped children who would have been denied any education 10 years ago are now attending public schools; many others who would have been hidden away in special schools are now in regular schools alongside nonhandicapped peers.

Simply stated, P.L. 94-142 is in place, and is "working" in the sense that every school system has devised a set of operating procedures to ensure its due-process guarantees. But is it implemented equally well everywhere? And is it working in the sense of helping children? When considering these questions, the consequences of the law's lack of specificity become apparent. Yes, P.L. 94-142 is working across the country--but not uniformly. In the absence of very detailed regulations, individual state and local education agencies have established their own guidelines, thus creating enormous variations across states and school districts. Differences are found in almost all provisions of the law: who is identified, how they are evaluated, where they are placed, and which services they receive.

In the area of identification, for example, the percentage of students enrolled in special education varies across the 50 states from 8 percent in Colorado to 16 percent in Massachusetts. The range of identification among individual districts is even wider, with some--such as Washington, D.C.--enrolling only 6 percent of all of their elementary- and secondary-school students, and others--such as Boston--enrolling over 20 percent.

District-by-district variations in implementation are not necessarily rooted in a conscious effort to deny access. Differential prevalence of handicaps accounts for part of the variation, as do the cutbacks in federal programs for disadvantaged youth. But over and above these explanations is the simple fact that the state of the art of developmental diagnosis remains extraordinarily primitive. Children's disabilities vary along a continuum at one end of which are problems so severe and observable that they would be apparent to anyone, and at the other, problems so amorphous that they display only the most ambiguous signs. When it comes to speech impairments, learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral problems, and other so-called "high-prevalence/low-severity" conditions, even though uniform definitions exist, trained professionals may disagree as to where the eligibility cutoff for special education should be drawn. For children with these problems, the net result is painfully apparent: The availability of equal opportunity under P.L. 94-142 depends on where a student happens to live.

Once a child has been identified, determined to be eligible for special education, and given a primary disability classification, there is still no great uniformity among school districts in placement and services. Do all children with hearing impairments require a sign interpreter in the classroom? How much counseling do emotionally disturbed children need? And who should provide it? These questions are invariably complex and not easily resolved at the policymaking level.

To handle the conflicts that might arise in individual cases, P.L. 94-142 provides for a due-process hearing for any parent wishing to contest a special-education decision. Many feared a tidal wave of litigation; relative to the total population served, however, only a small number of cases has come to trial. Court cases generally have involved severely disabled students whose parents felt that their child required more expensive placements or services than the school district deemed necessary.

How have the courts interpreted P.L. 94-142 in these cases? Since its passage, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice: Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley (1982) and Irving Independent School District v. Tatro (1984). In Rowley, the school district withdrew the services of a sign interpreter for a deaf youngster after officials noted that the child rarely relied on the interpreter and was performing at an above-average level without the service. The parents, however, contended that an interpreter was a related service necessary for the child to benefit from special education. Overturning lower-court rulings, the Supreme Court held that an appropriate education is one that confers "reasonable educational benefit"; that is, "appropriate" services need not necessarily be "optimal" ones. And since the child was doing above-average work without the interpreter, such services were not necessary, the majority ruled. Although the Rowley decision has meant a more limited interpretation of the word "appropriate," the question still remains as to what would have happened if the child, like many in special education, had been doing below-average work without the interpreter.

Although the Rowley decision has provided local and district courts with a substitute for "appropriate"--that is, "reasonable educational benefit"--the courts have still interpreted the ruling in a variety of ways. In some cases, this has meant a decision favoring the parents: The district must provide some costly specialized services such as residential placement. In other cases, the court has agreed with the district that specialized services were unnecessary.

More recently, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Amber Tatro, a young girl with spina bifida, who needed a relatively simple catheterization to make it through her school day. The school district contended that the catheterization was not supportive of Amber's special-education program since it was not an "educational service." The Supreme Court, however, agreed with the parents that since Amber could not attend school without it and thereby benefit from special education, it was, by definition, a supportive service. Although clearly establishing that certain health services are indeed covered by the law, only time will tell whether the Tatro decision will generalize to other related services such as psychotherapy and an extended school year.

If provision of specialized instruction and services were no more costly than regular education, these issues would probably be moot. But special education is expensive. A special-needs child's education costs almost twice as much as a nonhandicapped child's in the same district. For more severely disabled children, the cost differential escalates; in our work with school districts around the country, my colleagues and I are finding that, on average, educating a physically handicapped child may cost three to four times as much as educating a nonhandicapped peer.

Is special education worth it? Answered solely from a neutral research perspective, I'm afraid my answer would have to be that we just don't know. Cost-benefit studies measuring the gains produced by special education are scarce and inconclusive at best.

But the research perspective may not be the appropriate vantage point from which to consider this question. In research, outcomes must be measured in concrete terms and benefits clearly established. Moral and social obligations don't enter into the argument. Yet it is precisely these considerations that should ultimately shape our opinion on the matter of how much special education is enough. Indeed, it is not clear what research evidence ever could be gathered that would help us beyond the most simplistic level in making judgments about the value of special education, whether on grounds of humanitarian concern or social investment.

The logic of cost-benefit analysis seems to me to be on the side of the special educators. Regardless of what we do now, handicapped children eventually will leave school and enter society. A few well-spent dollars could go a long way toward developing social and vocational skills. Without these efforts, today's handicapped children will inevitably become tomorrow's economic and social burdens. Investing money now may reverse this process, enabling many to function independently and to lead productive lives.

As an entitlement, P.L. 94-142 remains one of the most far-reaching and visionary pieces of legislation ever to benefit children. Ten years into the new era of special education, we have made great strides toward achieving the law's goals. Now we must go farther and fine-tune our efforts so that all children, regardless of their handicapping condition, will be able to achieve their full human potential, however great or limited.

Vol. 04, Issue 23, Page 36

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