Education for All Handicapped Children Act - American EducationA federal law passed in 1975 that reversed the century-long practice of removing physically and mentally handicapped, unmanageable and delinquent children from their homes and communities and placing them in isolated residential facilities. Expanded dramatically and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1988, the 1975 legislation asserted the right of all children to the best possible education in the least restrictive environment, free of charge. The law provided a continuing flow of funds for public schools to provide such education. When the law was passed, only about 1.6 million of the 8 million handicapped children in the United States were attending public schools. Most of the rest were either languishing idly at home or incarcerated in residential facilities. In neither case did they receive any formal or special education that enhanced the possibility of eventual independence.
Called SUPPLEMENTARY SCHOOLS when they first appeared in the early 19th century, residential institutions for the handicapped grew in number as infant mortality rates declined and as urban life made it difficult for most parents to provide safe quarters for children who could not attend conventional schools. Originally operated by churches and philanthropic organizations, many became public institutions in the 1870s and 1880s. As the lowest on most state government lists of educational spending priorities, many deteriorated into Dickensian hellishness, where ill-paid, untrained workers abused or ignored their charges and offered little or no education. Television exposés of scandalous conditions at a score of institutions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with spiraling costs of maintaining such ineffective residential facilities, provoked a public clamor for “deinstitutionalization” of all but the most severely handicapped and incorrigible children.
Educators who, by then, had developed a variety of new, effective, educational techniques for formerly uneducable children, supported the deinstitutionalization movement, saying that isolating handicapped and delinquent children was educationally counterproductive. Such children, they maintained, would fare better educationally if placed in the educational “mainstream” of conventional public schools (see MAINSTREAMING) and provided with special education and other services to supplement conventional education. The result was the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Commonly called the Disabilities Education Act, the law forced the closure of the most primitive children’s institutions and brought an end to most construction of new residential facilities. It transferred the burden of educating the vast majority of mentally, physically and behaviorally handicapped children to public schools in the communities where the children lived, guaranteeing every handicapped child, three to 21 years old (about 6 million in 2000), equal rights to education and full protection against discrimination of any kind.
In addition to federal funding for special education, the law provided funding for all necessary construction to make school facilities “barrier free” and accessible to handicapped children and for all special transportation to carry children to and from school. The law was amended and refined in 1983, 1986 and 1988 to expand the role of the federal government in existing programs and extend coverage to the handicapped from birth into adulthood and to expand special education in preschool.
The law was costly, however, with all taxpayers sharing the costs of special education for the handicapped, and parents of handicapped children paying no more than any other taxpayers for their children’s education. Although the percentage of handicapped children ranged between 7% and 12% of the student population in the early 1990s, they absorbed between 20% and 25% of funds spent on public school education. Moreover, those costs began spiraling almost uncontrollably, as state and federal courts consistently expanded school responsibilities under the act to include more severely handicapped students, such as autistic children and the deeply retarded, in regular classrooms. By 2000, the U.S. Department of Education was spending 18% of its annual budget on special education, benefiting about 11.2% of the elementary and secondary school population.
The theory that generated expanded mainstreaming was that even the severely handicapped benefitted more in conventional classrooms than in segregated, special education facilities and that their classmates would learn tolerance. But the expanding, courtimposed doctrine of “full inclusion” so impeded teacher ability to pursue normal teaching activities and so interfered with the education of nondisabled students that the American Federation of Teachers called for a halt to the policy. One by one, state legislatures began setting limits to full inclusion in an effort to maximize the benefits of “mainstreaming” to the handicapped without affecting the quality of education of the nonhandicapped. (See also Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.)