The Foundational Laws of Special Education

By Keith Murfee-DeConcini

DSAB 651: Special Topic: Children with Disabilities, Law & Policy, Spring 2019


Yale Law scholar Erin Phillips, in her 2008 article, “When Parents Aren’t Enough: External Advocacy in Special Education,” said that “Special education is, without question, a fundamental part of our modern education system” (Phillips, 2008).  For something that is supposedly so fundamental, it is shocking that said part has only been around for, at the time of this writing, less than 50 years. Before the 1970s, very few people cared about the education of disabled people or, to use the most “polite” term from that era that has since fallen out of favor, handicapped individuals. The aim of this paper will be examining how the modern concept of special education got started in the 1970s and the law cases that propelled it to become a fundamental part of what we consider education today.

Special education is by no means a perfect concept, and neither was some of the language used while creating it. To be fair to historical background, especially in reference to case law, outdated and offensive terms such as “retarded” and “handicapped” will have to be used to ground the paper in historical context. Other offensive terms may be used as well.

The term “special education” became commonly used in educational settings thanks in large part to the passage of landmark provisions and laws in the United States, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975, which was revised as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 and then expanded with amendments in 1997 and further in 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA).

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

The verdict, in which the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, was a landmark case in the quest to desegregate the public school system in the United States. The ruling found in part: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal . . .” (Brown v. Board, 1954).

Although people with disabilities were not the focus of this case, and no one at the time probably thought that this case and its ruling would apply directly or indirectly to students with disabilities, it did (Rapp & Arddt, 2012). In another part of the verdict, the justices found that “Segregation of White and Colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the Colored children . . . A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn . . . ” (Brown v. Board, 1954).  In the entirely of the verdict, in order to link the judgement to that of students with disabilities, a lawyer inserts the word disabled and nondisabled children into the verdict where the descriptives of skin color were (i.e. White and Colored). (Rapp & Arddt, 2012).

This is by no means a legal way of usurping the judgement and its impact on African American students; rather it draws an effective legal parallel between two oppressed minority groups and the need and inherited right of inclusive education as a benefit to said groups. Brown in 1954 was a starting point for the Civil Rights movement for African Americans, and 20 years later, it would also be the same for the Disability Rights movement. Disability Activists would build upon the momentum started by Brown to continue the pursuit of equal opportunity and the pursuit of social justice through special education (Rapp & Arddt, 2012).

The Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1971)

Prior to the 1970s, the inclusion of people with disabilities in public education was nonexistent. No laws mandated that public schools allow students with disabilities to receive public education like their nondisabled peers (Winzer, 1993; Osgood, 2008). That began to change in a dramatic way with the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania case in 1971. The case advocated for equal rights to education for children with developmental disabilities. Pennsylvania did not try to fight for the right to exclude children with developmental disabilities from accessing public educational services; rather they chose to work with the United States District Court and PARC to navigate a way forward. The Court ruled on the case “that it is unconstitutional, in any way, to postpone or deny any child with developmental disabilities who is of compulsory school age (from 6 to 21 years old) access to a free public program of education and training, appropriate to his or her learning capabilities” (PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1972).

Beyond the significance that the PARC case was built upon the foundation laid by Brown v. Board, the case marked the first time in United States history that the Court addressed students with disabilities’ right to a free and appropriate public education in one state. It was a starting point, a roadmap for others to follow. It signaled a shift in what the public considered the right course of action regarding students with disabilities (Phillips, 2008).

Mills v. Board of Education (1972)

The very next year in the nation’s capital saw the Mills v. Board of Education case. Like the PARC case before it, Mills had a diverse set of plaintiffs, who thanks to their advocates (i.e., parents or legal guardians) sued schools of the District of Columbia for not providing publicly supported education and training to children with disabilities. All but two of the plaintiffs in the Mills case were teenagers at the time of the case, and all plaintiffs, regardless of their age or gender, had challenges (ranging from retardation to epilepsy to behavioral problems).

These challenges were beyond the school’s ability to control, and thus the schools either removed the students or denied them enrollment. The case exposed the situation as happening not only to a select few but rather to a large number of students with disabilities. “In 1972, as many as 18,000 of the 22,000 students with disabilities in the District of Columbia were being excluded, suspended, expelled, reassigned, and transferred from regular public schools without due process” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012).

The case went to the Supreme Court, which ordered the district to enroll some students in appropriate programs while reviewing appropriate programs to enroll the other students in (Mills v. Board, 1972). When the district failed to do this after a set timeline, the court issued this ruling: All children of the ages hereinafter prescribed who are bona fide residents of the District of Columbia are entitled to admission and free tuition in the Public Schools of the District of Columbia, subject to the rules, regulations, and orders of the Board of Education and the applicable statutes” (Mills v. Board, 1972). The court disregarded the Board of Education’s argument that they could not afford to implement these requirements without additional funds (Mills v. Board, 1972).

This case and the PARC case that preceded it were the first examples of disability rights litigation on behalf of many students. These cases “brought attention to the right of all children to have an education that is appropriate for their needs and abilities” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012). Furthermore, Mills, unlike PARC, is noted for the lengthy resolution of the case: in contrast with Pennsylvania’s willingness to cooperate, the district refused several times to adhere to the Court’s ruling on the set timetable. Thus, the Court had to revisit the issue several times before making the district comply.

The Mills case harkens back to the earlier success of the 1954’s Brown v. Board, given that all the plaintiffs were African American students with disabilities. Unlike Brown, which focused on the issue of race in education, Mills focused on the issue of disability in education. Thereby, out of the decisions of both cases, a connection was forged between the issues of race and disability in education. This intersection highlighted that, while students with disabilities overall were being denied public education services, certain groups like African American students with disabilities were being disproportionately affected.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 504

In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors (Viscardi Center, 2019). Although the cases mentioned above did not play a direct role in influencing the law, the shift in social consideration for the disabled and their rights was in fact influenced by the legal precedents set by those cases. The Rehabilitation Act contained Section 504, the first official legal gateway into what would become special education in a few years. While most members of Congress at the time considered it nothing more than a platitude to parents of children with disabilities, the provision was a result of disability activism nonetheless and ushered in a shift in how society viewed disability and social accommodation (Phillips, 2008). The provision, which “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance. . . .” (DREDF, 1997), was a precursor to later laws such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975 and its revision in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as the law that is thought of as the cornerstone of legal protections for disability rights: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

 While Section 504 in the Rehabilitation Act was the first legal opening for students with disabilities to access public education, the vague language used to write the act “left the extent and nature of services wide open for interpretation. In other words, the act provided students with disabilities access to schools, but it did not specify what to do with or for them once they were there” (Engh, 1988). The original language of Section 504’s qualifications left a lot of room for legal puzzlement in terms of who was considered a “handicapped individual” and what precisely “otherwise qualified” meant. It would take more than a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court would hear a case regarding the Rehabilitation Act and Section 504. Even then, the original language as to what distinguishes a handicapped individual from others was found to be, at best, blurred from a legal standpoint (Engh, 1988).

Vague language used in laws to allow for interpretation purposes was certainly not a new concept in the 1970s; it has in one way or another always been employed. Because of this, a case could be made for the notion that most subsequent law is very often built upon what came before it. The vast interpretations used in analyzing law pertaining to special education and disability rights would extend well beyond the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and into the present day (Diller, 2000; Gerber & Dicker, 2006; Kreskow, 2013; Hallman, 2017; Simoneau, 2018).

Education for All Handicapped Children Act

In 1975, the knowledge that there were “more than eight million children with disabilities living in the United States and more than half of them were receiving either lackluster schooling or being denied the chance to learn entirely” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012) became well known. This and the added knowledge that the special education services schools offered varied between states and were not provided consistently (Rapp & Arddt, 2012), because there was no law in place to mandate it on a national level, spurred the desire for change. That change made the country recognize that it was in their best interest “to pass federal legislation that standardized specific procedures to qualify students for specialized services, evaluate their needs, involve families, purposefully plan for and support individualized needs in the least restrictive environment, and provide procedures for grievance” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012). The outcomes of cases like PARC and Mills did influence the first law devoted to the concept of special education: the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), which was passed in 1975. The law’s passage marked the beginning of a significant change in social thinking regarding educating the disabled, beyond the first step of Section 504.

The EHA focused on six key provisions to foster the rise of special education. They are: free appropriate public education (FAPE), disability qualifications, nondiscriminatory assessment, least restrictive environment, individualized education programs, and parent involvement with right to procedural due process (Rapp & Arddt, 2012). Having a greater understanding of each provision as it was originally written in 1975 will help us track the eventual changes that came in 1990 when the EHA was amended as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Free Appropriate Public Education

The free appropriate public education (FAPE) provision requires that “All students considered of compulsory school age [6–21] must be provided equal access and opportunity in their public, neighborhood school” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012). Found within FAPE is a term known as the “zero reject rule,” which mandates that school personnel cannot decide if a student will or will not benefit from instruction within their school. Every student must be offered the opportunity to learn, regardless of disability or impairment. There is a catch built in, however; if the school feels that the child’s disability is too severe to benefit from the instruction provided within the school and can make a case regarding this claim, alternative arrangements can be made at another school at no expense to the parents (Rapp & Arddt, 2012).  

Disability Classifications

The classifications of disability covered for services under the EHA in 1975 were broad enough to include a vast range of disabilities, even if at the time there were only 11 classifications listed. The original classifications were: blindness, deaf-blindness, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, and visual impairment. Additional classifications such as autism and traumatic brain injury were later covered in 1990, which brought the classification total to 13 [Part B of IDEA] (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

Also in 1990, mental retardation was reclassified as intellectual disability or intellectual disabilities by the IDEA. Further classification changes in education and special education laws to replace mental retardation with intellectual disability or intellectual disabilities were done by the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 and 2017 (Social Security Administration, 2013; U.S. Department of Education, 2017). Regarding babies and toddlers [up to age 2], an additional classification of developmental delay is covered by the IDEA through the early intervention section [Part C of IDEA]. This additional classification, although specific to early ages unlike the other classifications (which apply to ages 3–21), made the total 14 (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

Nondiscriminatory Assessment

In order to be covered under the EHA/IDEA, a student must go through a process called a nondiscriminatory assessment, which evaluates them for the classifications listed above and determines if the student would benefit from special education services. This assessment is nondiscriminatory in the following ways: The assessment must be conducted in the student’s preferred language, and the assessment must include multiple tests in order to determine eligibility for services. A single test, like an intelligence (IQ) test, cannot form the results of the assessment. All testing done in the assessment must be able to fully evaluate the student’s capabilities and be conducted in an environment free of bias and barrier; this also extends to the manner in which the assessment is conducted. The tests selected for use in the assessment should be aimed at minimizing cultural bias in how they are conducted. The environment must be both physically and emotionally comfortable to the student in order to be conducive to effectively measuring their performance. This includes having the student have prior familiarity with the people conducting the assessment. The results of the assessment should be thoroughly analyzed and discussed by a multidisciplinary team of education professionals before the eligibility decision is presented (Rapp & Arddt, 2012).

Individualized Education Program

If a student is eligible for special education services, then that student is given an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is meant to assist in educating the student appropriately, based on his or her individual needs. It is written by a multidisciplinary team of education professionals, including the parents of the student. In order to be implemented effectively and kept up to date, an IEP has to be reviewed on an annual basis.

Inside the IEP will be a snapshot of how the student learns before the onset of special education, offer of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), goals for the student to work toward in the given school year, and accommodations and modifications to help the student reach those goals. An accommodation is generally considered something to help that student complete the same work as their peers, while a modification changes the work requirement for the student so they can complete it.

An example of this is if a student is allowed to type their notes on a computer instead of writing them by hand like their peers do, that is considered an accommodation. If the student is allowed to have someone else take notes on their behalf, that would be considered a modification. How they differ is that in one situation the student still does the work themselves with the aid of an accommodation, while in the other situation someone else is allowed to do the work on the student’s behalf. The given example is used to show how similar the two methods can be in a common schooling activity. A transition plan that includes additional goals is also part of the IEP of every student who is at least 16 years old, as they transition out of high school. The last page of the IEP requires the signatures of everyone who was present at the IEP meeting. Parenteral consent is required to be given before the preliminary IEP is implemented (Ahearn, 2006; Degree Prospects, 2013).

Least Restrictive Environment

The general concept of learning in the least restrictive environment is the goal that every student who has a disability or disabilities would learn in an educational setting with their peers who are nondisabled and in the same grade. At face value this concept is usually considered a worthwhile goal, one that should be implemented whenever possible. However, the implementation of what is considered the “least restrictive environment” can vary from student to student, and what may be appropriate for one student may be inappropriate for another student.

One student may require specialized instruction from a special education teacher and learn best in a classroom with other students who also benefit from special education. For that one student, it may be that setting is the best possible least restrictive environment for them. For another student in special education, that setting could be completely restrictive, and their least restrictive environment may need to be completely different: for example, a general education classroom with nondisabled peers in which that student has access to appropriate accommodations and/or modifications. The goal in implementing the least restrictive learning environment can certainly be making the genuine effort to place every student who has a disability or disabilities with their nondisabled peers; however, it must be recognized that there is no standardized formula for implementing this goal that will address the needs of every student. The most effective way of implementing the least restrictive environment provision of the IDEA is to instead craft that said environment around the individualized needs of the student with disabilities whenever possible (Crockett & Kauffman, 1999).

Parent Participation with the Right to Due Process

The last provision revolves around parent participation and the right to due process regarding the implementation of special education for their child. If their child is suspected of needing special education services, a notice from the school must be sent to the parents for their consent. If the parents do not want the special education evaluation to be done on their child, then it will not take place. However, if the parents fail to respond to the written notice, the evaluation can still take place, at the school’s discretion. If the student is found to have needs that require special education, their parents are invited into the development process of the IEP for their child, where the results of the evaluation are shared, and the IEP review meetings that follow. The parents can raise objections to anything that they feel is inappropriate for their child, and if they feel that the school has not implemented the special education provisions addressed above, their voices are entitled to be heard through due process. This process is outlined in the law under section 300.508 located in Part B, subpart E (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

The Legacy and Challenges of EHA/IDEA

The impact of the EHA/IDEA on special education cannot be overstated. It broke the mold, asserting that students with disabilities had rights to education just as much as their nondisabled peers did. While the law itself is about students with disabilities and their rights to special education services in school, the law is very much a parents’ law, as it was forged by their advocacy on behalf of their children. It is no wonder that sentiments like “[p]arents’ strong emotional attachment to their children and considerable knowledge of their particular needs make parents the child-specific experts most qualified to assess and pursue their children’s best interests in most circumstances” (Phillips, 2008) have been expressed in so many articles and books on special education (Winzer, 1993; Gerber & Dicker, 2006; Osgood, 2008; Phillips, 2008; Rapp & Arddt, 2012).   

Although the reach of what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was momentous and nothing short of historic in terms of providing rights to students with disabilities, some parts of the law have not aged well, even with the updated amendments of 2004. While the disability qualifications that determine whether or not a child can be covered under the law are broad enough to cover more than the 13 or 14 disabilities, the fact remains that those categories are based on predetermined definitions of disability. This not only links disability with the perception of being a deficit, it often pigeonholes students into a set number of check marks of what they cannot do, rather than what they can do. Some students have even been covered by Section 504 but not by the IDEA, which can cause legal trouble later on in life (Maher, 2011).

Special education teachers are understandably a rare breed; not every teacher can do it, and it would be a mistake to think otherwise. Teaching special education is not the same as teaching general education. Yet, special education often suffers due to “the lack of preparation of school personnel to meet a great variety of individual needs. . . . General education teachers were trained separately from special education teachers, who were trained separately from specialists in areas such as speech-language, occupational, and physical therapies. Collaboration and coteaching were not common in teacher preparation programs, so these professionals acted separately when working with students” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012). In fact, there has been a national shortage of special education teachers for years that keeps getting worse (Butrymowicz, 2010; Mader, 2017; Will, 2018).

As already stated, an IEP contains a lot of information relating to a student with disabilities and how they would learn best from special education being offered to them. Instead of having IEPs and their development drive the implementation of special education programs, it is often the other way around: “Program availability drove IEP development, rather than IEP details in a student’s best interest driving program development” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012).

This paper has already touched upon what a least restrictive environment (LRE) is meant to be and how it is not as clear cut from student to student as it either appears to or should be. It is no surprise then that the proper implementation of LRE has been a contentious issue that has been debated over the years. Some educational scholars believe that while the intent of the provision was to put “the general education classroom at the ‘top’ of the continuum . . .” the law itself has an “‘out’ to inclusive education built right in to the law meant to promote it” (Rapp & Arddt, 2012).

EHA/IDEA in the Courts

In 1982, Amy Rowley, a deaf student who at the time of the case was a first grader, faced an impasse between her school and her parents over whether or not Amy required an interpreter, in addition to an FM wireless hearing aid, in order to learn fully in a manner comparable with her nondisabled peers. This impasse led to a mediation in which the result favored the parents. The school brought a case to the lower court, which also agreed with the parents. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of the school, which had refused access of an interpreter to Rowley, claiming that “‘free and appropriate education’ under EHC [or EHA] provides for the ‘basic floor for opportunity,’ rather than providing for the opportunity to maximize the potential of the child” (Hendrick Hudson v. Rowley, 1982). Because this ruling was the first time that the Supreme Court had interpreted the EHA and a significant provision of the law (their only ruling on FAPE until 2017 [Endrew F. v. Douglas County, 2017]), the impact on students with disabilities was profound for years to come (Weber, 2011; Rapp & Arddt, 2012).

Since 1990, when the EHA became IDEA, legal experts have wondered if the Rowley precedent was still valid, considering that the ruling only applied to FAPE as written in EHA. IDEA overtook EHA as the lawful precedent from 1990 onwards. Further, amendments in both 1997 and the 2004 reauthorization, plus other education laws like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and Common Core, all affect the ruling in one way or another (Mead & Paige, 2008; Webber, 2012; Cowin, 2018). In 2017’s Endrew F v. Douglas County School Dist. RE–1 decision, the Supreme Court updated the definition of FAPE as education that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” (Endrew F. v. Douglas County, 2017). Before that case however, Rowley was considered to be the most significant court case concerning special education (Webber, 2012). It is estimated that it has been cited by at least 3,279 cases (Webber, 2012). Even still, scholars have observed that with the passage of time, several courts had begun moving away from the Rowley verdict and towards a heightened standard of meaningful educational benefit, even before the Endrew case in 2017 (Drake, 1991; Johnson, 2003; MacFarlane, 2012).

Conclusion: Parents and Special Education Law

The history described above is by no means exhaustive; it only details the humble beginnings of special education, mainly starting in the 1970s. There are over 30 cases that either directly or indirectly impact special education (Crane, 2014; Forte, 2017; Treimanis, 2017; Sang, 2018). Without a doubt, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990, 1997, and 2004 remain in effect today and are rightly considered to be the cornerstones of special education, whereas the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 remains the cornerstone of disability rights and justice.

How the ADA and IDEA work together to support students with disabilities, as they navigate through their education is a fascinating topic; however, that would be the subject of another paper entirely and rightly so. Perhaps the best way to sum up the complex legal history of special education, to which this author has offered a modest introduction, is by borrowing the title of a paper written in 1998: “The Legal History of Special Education: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been!” (Yell, Rogers, & Lodge Rogers, 1998).

As much as the ADA is considered a law brought on by the countless and tireless disability activists such as Justin Whitlock Dart Jr., Patrisha Wright, and Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., to name a few (Mayerson, 1992; National Institute on Disability, 2001; Burgdorf, 2015), IDEA, and EHA before it, also strongly advocated for by parent activists who wanted their children with disabilities to have access to education like their nondisabled peers. It seems all too fitting to close this paper by giving a personal example from a parent.

A Personal Example

The parent, whose experience will be recounted in her own words as much as possible, did not give special education much thought until she had her son, who was born with multiple disabilities on October 30, 1984. After his birth, Elizabeth Murfee was unwittingly thrust into becoming both a single parent studying how to parent a child with special needs, and a strong disability advocate for the special education needs of her son. Over the years this parent turned advocate has taught me many things about advocacy, in relation to disability and in a general sense.

As I conclude my final paper for my master’s degree in Disability Studies from the City University of New York School of Professional Studies, it is only right that I give the conclusion of this paper on the foundational laws of special education to my mother. Through her tireless advocacy on behalf of my needs as a person with disabilities, especially in relation to my educational needs, she enabled me to reach this moment. While I have benefited from special education services for most of my life, it was only recently that I began to study those services and the complex histories behind them. As a student in my formative years, I was blissfully unaware for the most part of my educational needs being any different than those of my peers. My mother was not. Her memories of the struggles she endured even after the passage of the IDEA in 1990 to help me get the education I deserved under the law conclude this paper.

“IDEA – Such a Great Idea”

Keith and I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, a few months before Keith was to enter kindergarten, as I had found an excellent public school that had a self-contained classroom for students with learning disabilities, with a master teacher and two teaching assistants for 15 students. The students were mainstreamed for non-academic classes. It was an example of how possible it is to provide excellent and free education for students with disabilities. It was not rocket science, after all. Plus, with federal and state funding, there seemed to be enough money to make this type of education available.

To avoid any difficulty in enrolling Keith in this class, I bought a house in the neighborhood of this school: Quail Run Elementary. Part of Paradise Valley School District, the administration had decided to implement IDEA in the way it was intended. The district employed an accomplished Special Education Administrator, which led to the development of this classroom. The principal of Quail Run embraced the program wholeheartedly. There were other programs at other schools throughout the district, but I do not remember the details of those.

Quail Run employed a full-time educational psychologist, who reviewed Keith’s testing and agreed that he qualified for the program. If I had not come with our own testing, this woman would have given Keith the necessary testing for free. It was a no-hassle enrollment, just as if we have been a “regular” family. I breathed a sigh of relief and silently thanked the advocates who had made IDEA the law of the land.

Though Keith has multiple disabilities, the biggest one from an educational standpoint is his learning disability. The program at Quail Run fit him to a T.

For students who needed it (and Keith did), the school also employed itinerant speech therapists, and physical and occupational therapists. Those appointments were scheduled for him throughout the week. Keith thrived in this classroom, which continued until third grade. I will never forget the master teacher, Helen MacPherson, her devotion to her students, and her commitment to providing what each student needed to learn. She provided a calm and joyful learning environment.

By fourth grade, Keith graduated to another school, North Ranch Elementary. But a lot had changed in Arizona, including the election of a governor who gradually cut the state education budget year by year until it began to have drastic effects (still an ongoing problem in Arizona). This led to districts cutting their Special Education programs throughout the state, as they needed the money for regular education. These cuts showed in the classroom and in Paradise Valley’s commitment to students with disabilities. On top of that, the principal of North Ranch was barely interested in the needs of those with special needs. We became very concerned about Keith’s education.

When a job offer came for us to move to Washington, D.C., we took it, as it was clear that Keith was not going to be able to get the education he needed in Arizona. The District of Columbia and the surrounding communities had many excellent private schools devoted solely to students with disabilities. We reasoned that if the public schools could not provide a good program for Keith, we at least would have the possibility of private schools.

DC public schools turned out to be notoriously bad, even for regular education students. The administration was equally incompetent and clearly not interested in helping students with disabilities. Their offerings were pitiful in every way, and the attitude was “take it or leave.” So we took the only route open to us, which was to sue the DC district to allow Keith to attend a private school (and pay the tuition), since the DC district did not provide a program that met his needs, even barely.

We had to engage a lawyer for this process. We were successful in our suits—plural—because we had to re-file this suit every year, as well as pay the private tuition ourselves and be reimbursed by the District well after the fact, which often required further legal action to receive the payments owed to us, as decreed by the administrative judge. This option, obviously, is not open to low-income parents. Or to anyone without a great deal of fortitude and grit.

The yearly process was stressful and expensive, both for us and the DC school district. The district hired private lawyers to oppose us, as well. We were not the only family for which the district had to pay private tuition. The district could have put all that money into providing a decent education for the students in their jurisdiction and probably still have saved money. I could never understand why they did not see that.

Keith benefited from an excellent education at Ivymount School, then Harbour School, then Eagle Hill School, and then graduated from Grove School, all private schools (the last two were private boarding schools). Without the IDEA behind us, Keith would not have had an appropriate education from the fourth grade forward.

I do not know if our story is representative. From my experience, I saw that providing quality education for students with disabilities is possible, in fact, very possible. When it doesn’t occur, it is not because of a lack of talented and knowledgeable teachers in the field. It is because of a lack of will among administrators to embrace teaching students with disabilities and to see their individual needs as an exciting opportunity. For what is learned by teaching students with disabilities can improve the teaching of all students.

Further, it appears that elected officials around the country are placing less and less priority on funding education in general, and public education in particular, or of even providing the means to pay teachers a decent salary (e.g., witness the teacher strikes over the last few years). That is a tragedy for our country, our citizens, and our future. For Educational Disability Advocates, it requires constant vigilance to see that students with disabilities are afforded their rights to a free and appropriate education, and that IDEA continues to be implemented everywhere in the country.


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