Special Education Public Policy


In the 1954 landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that it was unlawful to discriminate against a group of individuals for arbitrary reasons. The Court determined that education was characterized as a fundamental function of government that should be afforded to all citizens on an equal basis. The Brown decision by the U.S. Supreme Court set a precedent that was used by parents and advocates to secure equal educational opportunities for children with disabilities. Two court decisions in 1972, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, District of Columbia started a flurry of litigation regarding the education of children with disabilities. The litigation, coupled with untiring vocal and collaborative efforts of parents and politically powerful advocacy groups, led to federal legislation in 1975 for students with disabilities.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) was signed into law on November 29, 1975 by President Gerald Ford. This legislation is considered the “Bill of Rights” for children with disabilities and their families. The legislation incorporated six major components or guarantees that have forever changed the landscape of education across the United States. These components include:

  1. A free appropriate public education (FAPE). All children, regardless of the severity of the disability, must be provided an education appropriate to their unique needs at no cost to the parent(s)/guardian(s). Included in this principle is the concept of related services, which requires that children receive other services as determined educationally necessary to benefit from special education. These related services may include occupational therapy, physical therapy, orientation and mobility instruction, and a host of other support services for the student.
  2. The least restrictive environment (LRE). Children with disabilities are to be educated, to the maximum extent appropriate, with students without disabilities. Placements must be consistent with the pupil’s education needs. Each state is required to provide a full continuum of alternate placements.
  3. An individualized education program (IEP). This document, developed with the parent(s)/guardian(s), is an individually tailored statement describing an educational plan for each learner with exceptionalities. The IEP is required to address: (1) the present level of academic functioning; (2) annual goals and accompanying instructional objectives; (3) educational services to be provided; (4) the degree to which the pupil will be able to participate in general education programs; (5) plans for initiating services and the length of service delivery; and (6) an annual evaluation procedure specifying objective criteria to determine if instructional objectives are being met.
  4. Procedural due process. The Act affords parents or guardians several safeguards pertaining to the child’s education. Briefly, parents or guardians have the right to confidentiality of records; to examine all records; to obtain an independent evaluation; to receive written notification (in the parents’ native language) of proposed changes to the child’s educational classification or placement; and the right to an impartial hearing whenever disagreements arise regarding educational plans for the child. Furthermore, the student’s parents or guardians have the right to representation by legal counsel.
  5. Nondiscriminatory assessment. Prior to placement, a child must be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team in all areas of suspected disability by tests that are not racially, culturally, or linguistically biased. Students are to receive several types of assessments, administered by trained personnel. A single evaluation procedure is not permitted for either planning or placement purposes.
  6. Parental participation. P.L. 94-142 mandates meaningful parent involvement. This legislation requires that parents participate fully in the decision-making process that affects the child’s education.

Major components of the Amendments to PL 94-142

Public Law 99-457 (1986 Amendments to PL 94-142

PL 99-457 created the Handicapped Infants and Toddlers Program. This new provision was aimed at children from birth through age 2 with developmental delays or disabilities. It assists states in implementing a statewide, comprehensive, coordinated, multidisciplinary, interagency program of services for young children and their families.

Public Law 101-476 (1990 Amendments to PL 94-142)

  • Renamed the legislation Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • Required that each student have, no later than age 16, an individual transition plan (ITP) as part of his or her IEP. The plan allows for a coordinated set of activities and interagency linkages designed to promote the student’s movement to post school functions such as independent living, vocational training, and additional educational experiences.
  • Expanded the scope of the related services provision by adding two services: social work and rehabilitation counseling.
  • Added the identification of autism and traumatic brain injury as distinct disability categories.

Public Law 105-17 (1997 Amendments to PL 94-142)

  • Students with disabilities who exhibit less serious infractions of school conduct may be disciplined in ways similar to children without disabilities (including a change in placement) provided that the misbehavior was not a manifestation of the student’s disability.
  • IEPs are now required to state how the student with disabilities will be involved with and progress in the general education curriculum.
  • Transition planning will begin at age 14.
  • Regular educators will become part of the IEP team.
  • Benchmarks and measurable annual goals will be emphasized.
  • Assistive technology needs of the student must be considered by the IEP team.
  • Orientation and mobility services for children with visual impairments were added to the definition of related services.
  • States are required to offer mediation services to help resolve disputes.
  • A variety of assessment tools and strategies are to be used in an effort to gather relevant functional and developmental information.
  • Requires that students with disabilities be included in statewide and districtwide assessment programs or given alternative assessments that meet their unique needs.

Public Law 108-446 (2004 Amendments to PL 94-142)

  • Added language from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 regarding core academic subjects, limited English proficiency, and highly qualified teachers.
  • Created a 15-state pilot program in which states may develop and implement three-year IEPs.
  • Districts may elect to not use the “discrepancy formula” in determining if students have a learning disability. A school district may instead use a process called the response to intervention model.
  • Benchmarks or short-term objectives are no longer required in an IEP, except for students who take alternative assessments.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA or IDEA 2004)

  • Purpose of IDEA 2004 is to reauthorize IDEA to be consistent with No Child Left Behind and update education legislation
  • IQ achievement discrepancy is no longer required for the determination of a specific learning disability
  • Response to Intervention (RTI) may be used as part of the special education evaluation
  • RTI interventions are based on research-based interventions
  • The individualized education program (IEP) planning teams base services on peer-reviewed literature
  • Student progress is regularly monitored based on written measurable goals
  • Transition services begin at age 16
  • Align IDEA with NCLB’s provisions
  • A student with a disability may be removed to an interim alternative setting up to 45 school days, if the behavior involved a weapon, illegal drugs or bodily harm, without the determination of whether the behavior is a manifestation of the disability.
  • Dispute-resolution system model for education was clarified
  • Changes in special education eligibility and evaluation process


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