What we can learn from a half-century of federal special education reform (part 1)

Two major historical anniversaries in American education passed by this summer without significant public comment: consent decrees that ended two federal lawsuits in May and August 1972, lawsuits intended to open up educational access for children with disabilities in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. Before these lawsuits, it had been regularly practice since early in the 20th century for school districts to simply deny education to children labeled mentally retarded or any one of a range of other disability labels that presumably rendered the children unable to benefit from education. These exclusions were the result of both prejudice and convenience, and the lawsuits forced public schools in Pennsylvania and the nation’s capital to open their doors to all school-aged children. 

Fifty years ago, the agreements by school authorities in these two cases opened the floodgates to more pressure. Lawyers for children with disabilities and their families quickly filed more than three dozen right-to-education lawsuits in federal court, along the lines of the first two cases. Legislatures in Tennessee and Massachusetts passed state laws to provide access to education for all children, and one of the sponsors in the Tennessee legislature explained in floor debate that the state was faced with either passing education reform to open up schools to all children, or a federal lawsuit like other states. Then, in 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (also known as Public Law 94-142), the first version of the education civil rights law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Within a few years of those first cases, public education had embarked on one of the largest permanent reforms of the past century. On the 50th anniversary of those consent decrees, public debate about education reform usually omits the education of students with disabilities, though by any reasonable measure, it should rank at least as high as any other effort at the state or national level. The 1975 law changed who was eligible for education (everyone!), under what circumstances (all!), and it made those obligations enforceable under special administrative law hearings and in federal courts. Both states and school districts changed their internal structures to satisfy their obligations to identify those legally entitled to special education services, work with families in creating individualized plans, and employ and supervise educators who could carry out those plans. The legal requirement for education in the least restrictive environment eventually changed where most students with disabilities received their education, partially or entirely with nondisabled peers. 

Federal education mandates for students with disabilities have become a major permanent reform. But they did not solve all or even most of the challenges students faced in school. Yes, the law and the responses by public education have helped millions: I saw how one of my daughter’s second-grade classmates was identified as having a specific learning disability. She received special education services in reading and writing, and two decades later she earned an engineering PhD. That benefit is what we hope will happen from special education services. Yet while more than 70% of students with disabilities graduate high school with a standard diploma, they are still less likely to do so than nondisabled peers and take longer to graduate from college. Their scores on academic achievement tests are generally lower than those of nondisabled peers, including on the National Assessment of Education Progress. And schools are far more likely to discipline them in various ways, with long-term consequences. Some years ago, Alfredo Artiles, Aydin Bal, and I summarized the history as a double-edged sword: legal protection, yes, and those protections did not prevent students with disabilities from being the objects of discrimination and lower-quality education.

After a half-century of reform in the education of students with disabilities, educators can learn several lessons from its legacy. The legacy is the result of five major factors that shaped the last fifty years: the politics of the education of students with disabilities; planning and design efforts; the long-term history of school systems; emergent responses by people in multiple roles; and policy feedback loops. Omitting any of these factors would oversimplify a half-century of this major reform effort. I’m going to discuss the first two factors today, and the others in a follow-up post.


The politics of education and disability did not start with the 1972 consent decrees, or with the filing of lawsuits against Pennsylvania or Washington, DC. But once lawyers on both sides negotiated agreements to end those cases, along with other allies and professional advocates, families of children with disabilities entered a new phase  of advocacy, starting a persistent and often-successful campaign to change public schooling. They lobbied state and federal lawmakers, threatened and filed lawsuits, and built and tried to manage a coalition in support of mandates for schools to be accessible to and serve all children. That advocacy later led to refinements on the set of fundamental rights in the 1975 federal special education law. Pressure from parents, students, and others pushed Congress to pass education laws focusing on students with disabilities. Lawyers helped parents maneuver within the administrative hearings when relationships with school districts disintegrated, and filed state and federal lawsuits that required courts to define the boundaries of public education’s legal obligations. 

Planning and design

When I look at the education of individuals with disabilities over the past 50 years, I can identify two different types of planning or design efforts: what one might call policy design, or explicit attempts to craft formal rules that guide practice; and then the efforts of researchers to develop and evaluate a range of individual interventions and systematic efforts to improve the education of individuals with disabilities. Please remember that these efforts were part of one factor that shaped the past 50 years. Other factors then contributed to what happened as those formal rules and R&D efforts met the messy world of schools and classrooms. 

One type of planning and design effort focused on policy: the drafting of the 1975 law is probably the most obvious example. It includes a number of ideas: educational decisions that were legally the joint responsibility of families and school systems; individualization of education for hundreds of thousands of students; and an administrative law system that states had to set up to resolve disputes that would arise between families and school districts.  These were ambitious ideas, and they had never been seen in most of American education before the mid-1970s. Other policy designs followed, such as family-centered planning for young children with developmental disabilities, and transition planning for a post-secondary life — planning that legally had to include students.

Those policy ideas were not the only focus of design efforts. The federal government has also funded researchers to develop and evaluate ideas that could be used in classrooms or in school systems more broadly. I have met dozens of university faculty, research staff, and others who have created a number of ways intended to improve the education of students with disabilities. Many of those ideas did not end up improving outcomes, but many others did. Some of those successful ideas became adopted by schools, and that of course was the purpose of federal grants to researchers who promised to focus on improving the education and lives of students with disabilities. 

But plans and designs do not always become part of practice in the way that match the original intentions, and in Part 2, I will explain some of the other factors that shaped the past half-century of American education for students with disabilities.