Special Education Law Was Signed by Ford, Despite Reservations

Measure had ‘unrealistic’ goals, he feared.

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When President Gerald R. Ford signed a special education bill in 1975 that would have a huge impact on students and schools, his ambivalence was evident.

Though he supported its mission to open classroom doors for children with disabilities, the fiscally conservative Republican expressed worries that the Education for All Handicapped Children Act would strain the resources of the federal government and raise false expectations of support—predictions that many special education observers say have become a reality.

As dignitaries, family members, and friends said goodbye last week to the nation’s 38th president, who died Dec. 26 at age 93, others were trying to make sure that his words regarding special education were remembered and heeded by those trying to improve the landmark law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

When President Ford signed the original measure into law on Nov. 29, 1975, his written statement revealed his conflicted feelings: “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.”

“His signing statement is so prescient, it’s amazing,” said Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, a Boston-based special education lawyer, who after Mr. Ford’s death spent time distributing the signing statement. “Acknowledging the law has major challenges makes you want to improve the law, not do away with it.”

‘Open to Ideas’

Mr. Ford’s 29-month presidency, which began in August 1974 when the Watergate scandal forced President Richard M. Nixon from office, was marked by tumultuous events, including the end of the Vietnam War, the new president’s pardon of Mr. Nixon, and battles over civil rights.

A look back shows President Ford’s major role in education policy remains the IDEA, but he also left his fingerprints on issues such as equal access to educational opportunities regardless of gender.

“He was quite open to ideas on education,” said David Mathews, 71, who served President Ford as secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which preceded the creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979. “Anytime I wanted to talk about education or make proposals, I found him quite receptive.”

But with everything else going on during his presidency, the focus for President Ford was not often on education.

“He was not greatly concerned with education policy on its merits, in my view, but saw it through an exclusively budgetary lens,” Gareth Davies, a lecturer on American history at Oxford University in England, wrote in an e-mail last week. “The point here is not that Ford was in any sense ‘anti-education,’ but rather that he was an old-fashioned conservative who thought that education was a matter for the states.”

Objectives and Costs

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan from 1949 until he replaced Spiro T. Agnew as vice president in 1973, Mr. Ford had several allies with a particular interest in education. One was Albert Quie, a Republican congressman from Minnesota. As vice president and then president, Mr. Ford retained close ties to Mr. Quie, which they had forged in a prayer group both attended.

President Ford working in the Oval Office on March 25, 1975.
President Ford working in the Oval Office on March 25, 1975.
—David Hume Kennerly/White House photograph courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Library

Not long after Mr. Ford became president, he summoned Mr. Quie and HEW staff members to the Oval Office to talk about the proposed special education legislation, which Mr. Quie was pushing for adoption.

According to Mr. Quie, the HEW officials had a different view of the legislation. “They laid out their ideas for the president, and then President Ford turned to me and asked my view,” Mr. Quie recalled. “I laid it out the way I thought it ought to go.”

The president, he said, “turned back to his department and said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Then he told them to go ahead and do it the way Quie laid out.”

The legislation passed overwhelmingly. Still, President Ford had serious reservations.

“Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill—educating all handicapped children in our nation,” he said in his statement. “The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective. Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic.”

The law established a federal mandate of a “free, appropriate public education” for children with disabilities and opened classroom doors to many children who were previously excluded. Today, 6.8 million children are served under the IDEA.

Disagreement over the federal government’s funding role remains, however. The law originally said that Washington would pay 40 percent of schools’ excess special education costs by 1982, based on the national average per-pupil expenditure, but that was later amended to say that the federal government would pay a “maximum” of 40 percent of those costs. Today, the federal government pays about 18 percent of the costs.

Rules for Title IX

Mr. Ford also played a part in establishing the regulations for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs. He approved the regulations that mapped out just how Title IX should be enforced, from the classroom to the athletic field, said Marcia D. Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.

Though advocacy groups had to file a lawsuit to force the administration to issue the final rules, Ms. Greenberger said that when Mr. Ford approved them in 1975, they were well thought out.

“There was certainly foot-dragging, but on the other hand, there was not a hostility to those laws that we had seen before,” she said. “So when the regulations were issued, they were sensible and practical, and they gave meaning to the spirit behind Title IX.”

The other education issue at the forefront during Mr. Ford’s presidency was desegregation. Though the bitterly contested desegregation of the Boston public schools was national news, the Ford administration seemed reluctant to take strong action, said William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington advocacy group.

Mr. Mathews, the former HEW secretary, said Mr. Ford sent government officials to Boston and proposed the formation of biracial citizen groups to help ease clashes over school desegregation.

Mr. Ford worked on issues of access and equal rights in education even after leaving office. In 1987, he and former President Jimmy Carter—who defeated Mr. Ford in the 1976 election—co-chaired a panel that issued a call to reverse lagging minority participation in higher education.

PHOTO: Mourners walk past portraits of the late President Gerald R. Ford at his presidential museum in Grand Rapids., Mich., last week. In 1975, Mr. Ford signed a landmark special education law.
—Carlos Osorio/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 18, Page 21

Published in Print: January 10, 2007, as Special Education Law Was Signed by Ford, Despite Reservations
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