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  • Sarah Kesty

You need to hear this! (The not-so-old history of Special Ed)




Ask a kid, and 1975 seems like a thousand years ago. I mean, if you were born in ’75, you’ve got to be at least 100, right?


All jokes aside, 1975 represents a crucial year for special education. It’s the year the pioneering law called “IDEA” was enacted. IDEA mandated that public schools maintain special education supports for students with special needs. It was a huge win, albeit imperfect, for all of us!



And, as with most things advocacy, the IDEA law was hard-won. It took years of litigation and lobbying to bend the ears of politicians and convince the country that the rights of kids with disabilities were equal to their peers’.


What’s especially cool to me is how movements that seemed separate on the surface revealed themselves to be inextricably connected. The Civil Rights movement, and its implications for schools, laid the foundation for disabled students’ rights in schools!


A quick refresher: Before 1954, public schools in the US segregated students by the amount of melanin in their skin. White and black children were taught in schools that were reportedly, “separate but equal.” Yeah, right. In 1954, the Supreme Court tried Brown vs. the Board of Education and declared that all students had the right to equal and shared schools.


Importantly, the court declared, “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to success in life in he is denied the opportunity of an education.” They didn’t realize how right they were.


So, as states and districts were going through the process of desegregating schools, an incongruent reality continued: kids with disabilities were left out of education.


The Supreme Court asserted the importance of education for our children. They even said that different treatment of students based on unalterable characteristics was a violation of the 14th Amendment. You know, the whole no government can make laws that impair any citizen’s privileges or deprive someone of life, liberty, or property. The Supreme Court said that state-required segregation solely on the basis of a person's unalterable characteristics, in this case race, violated the rights afforded to us in the constitution.


Hmm. So, our nation is recognizing that, you know what, we can’t exclude or separate kids based on things they can’t change about themselves, like skin color. That’s absolutely true. And, logic would expect an easy extension of this ruling: we also, then, can’t exclude or separate kids based on things they can’t change, like disability status, right? Sigh, nope, not yet.


Nearly 20 years after desegregation of schools, education for students with disabilities was hodgepodge and not required. In 1970, The US Department of Education reported that 20% of students with disabilities were getting an education in public schools. That’s 4 out of 5 kids with special needs left out of school altogether a mere 52 years ago. Let that simmer a minute.


The movement had gained some support from President John F Kennedy, whose sister, Rosemary, was born with a disability. JFK created a commission to raise public awareness and correct what he called a national “failure” to search for solutions for people with disabilities. (He used the word retarded, but that was common at the time).


JFK’s efforts brought encouraging results. As of 1974, some students with disabilities were getting special help in schools, about 47% of kids, according to the federal Bureau for the Education of the Handicapped. Another 22% of kids with disabilities were allowed to attend school but got no additional help. But that still left the rest of our kids, almost a quarter of students with disabilities, with no school experience at all; and the 22% who were allowed in the school buildings weren’t necessarily getting the help they needed.



I have the MLK Jr quote, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied,” up in my office. Actually, it’s positioned right behind my laptop. It’s followed by a graphic, another quote by MLK: “The time is always right to do what is right.” This drives my advocacy and speaks to the core of our shared experience in paving better roads for all kids.


Justice for kids with disabilities was too long delayed. It was denied. And, standing on the shoulders of civil rights activists, parents began to call for equity. The unalterable characteristics that alienated their children no longer justified lacking or deficient educations.


It took several lawsuits and hearings that reached the Supreme Court, but by 1975 the public opinion and that of the courts supported the inclusion of our kids with special needs. The first iteration of IDEA was enacted in November, 1975, and with its passage, present-day special education was born.


IEPs are 47 years old. 504 plans, enacted in 1973 as a section of the Rehabilitation Act, are 49. We’ve come a long way in almost 50 years, but we need to recognize the context here:

In terms of school systems, special education is still a bit new. It was an addition to a system that was built with a specific learner in mind. The wheels of education turn slowly, and as you imagine, creating, improving, and utilizing special education programs took years.


Teacher preparation is another context for us to kick around in our brains. Special education credentialing programs sought to meet the need of preparing special educators, but, as we know, most students with special needs actually spend MOST of their time in general education classrooms. Yet, the majority of general education teacher prep programs do a cursory review of special education, a class or a unit of study at best, for the majority of our teachers.


Translation: Your child with special needs spends most of their day under the care of a teacher with limited to no special education skills. This is a problem.


I’ll add a final log to the fire: the services that the federal government mandated have never been fully funded. The law forces states and their districts to serve students with any need; they call it “zero reject.” Yet, the federal government funds not even half of the cost. If you’ve ever chased down a service for your kid and had to jump through a million hoops to attain a support that may cost a bit to districts, this may explain the treacherous road: Districts see the discrepancy between the bill for special ed and the repayment from the federal government, and it breeds resentment.

They call it encroachment. It means the cost for special education encroaches on the general fund.


Gross, right? I’ll dive into this later. But here’s the deal: the newness of special ed (and the fact that it was added on later, not built from the ground level like the rest of public school), the lack of teacher preparation, and budget mismatch for services sets us up for a fight. The history of special ed provides a lens for some of the challenges we face. Not an excuse. But, we must understand where we are to know how to get to better places.


Speaking of better places, next week we’ll talk about what schools can offer to meet the needs of our kids. This week, though, take some time to think about your journey through your new lens. Have there been reluctant teachers, grumpy gatekeepers, or service denials? It can help you to depersonalize the struggle and start to try out systems thinking. When you’re able to do so, you become a highly effective advocate for your kid!

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