Sometimes I wish we could eliminate special education. Every child has strengths and weaknesses, and the goal of education is to meet all of their learning needs; it seems unnecessary to place some students in a separate category that requires more “special” education than others. The problem with that logic is that before we had special education, before Public Law 94-142—the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA])—was passed in 1975, more than a million children with disabilities were completely excluded from the education system, and many more had only partial access. The Federal Government did not require schools to include children with disabilities, so children that schools deemed uneducable could not attend public schools. Some families were able to send their children to specialized private schools and other children were institutionalized. A great many others had no option but to stay home. Those who were enrolled in public schools were generally either placed in regular classrooms without accommodations or segregated in special classes.
P.L. 94-142 guaranteed a free and appropriate education for all children—with due process protection—and that was a big deal. Moreover, the law stipulated that children who received special education services had to be placed in the “least restrictive environment” so they could be educated with other children as much as possible, and states were required to provide a continuum of such placements—a range of placements from the regular education classroom to hospitals or institutions.
But P.L. 94-142 was first implemented over 40 years ago. Do we still need it? Unfortunately we do. If all students were placed in the least restrictive environment, receiving instruction that was appropriate to meet their needs, parents would not ask me to conduct independent evaluations. They would not require due process hearings to settle disputes. And it would not be necessary to attend team meetings in which outside experts like me advocate for better placements and services.
I would truly like to believe that all children can receive the kind of education that helps them reach their potential without the need for legislation—that we can manage without IDEA. Perhaps we’ll get there someday, but we’re just not there yet.
Dr. Andrea Winokur Kotula is an educational consultant for families, advocates, attorneys, schools, and hospitals. She has conducted hundreds of comprehensive educational evaluations for children, adolescents, and adults.