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Federal early childhood special education policy: a model for the improvement of services for children with disabilities.

Indicators of the accomplishments of early childhood special education abound:

* At the end of 1990, more than 600,000 children with special needs, birth through 5 years of age, were receiving intervention services (U.S. Department of Education, 1991).

* The Division for Early Childhood, which was established within The Council for Exceptional Children in 1973, had nearly 7,000 members by 1990, making it the fourth largest of the divisions.

* Three journals, Journal of Early Intervention, Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, and Infants and Young Children are devoted exclusively to the presentation of new knowledge in early childhood. All were started in the 1980s.

* In 1977, there was only one textbook in early childhood special education. A decade later, over a dozen had been published (Odom, 1988).

The goal of universally available, high-quality early childhood services envisioned by Public Law 99-457 may not be fully realized in the near future; but there can be no doubt that the family of a young child with a disability had a much better chance of locating services for their child in 1990 than they would have in 1960. Furthermore, the services would most likely be of higher quality and provided by better trained professionals.

These accomplishments have taken place against a backdrop of gradually evolving federal policy in early childhood special education (ECSE). P.L. 99-457 was the culmination of over two decades of federal initiatives, which progressively enhanced America's capacity to provide services for young children with disabilities. Indeed, the process has been literally evolutionary--one development building upon another. What began as a series of geographically distributed demonstration projects evolved into a national mandate for services.

The history of federal policy in ECSE can be seen as a model for the purposeful improvement of services for other populations with disabilities. By focusing on multiple objectives and using a variety of strategies, the federal government helped move the United States closer to the ultimate goal of a national system of services. Federal initiatives were developed to stimulate interest and activity in ECSE; to share information; to advance the knowledge base; to increase the supply of trained personnel; and to build an infrastructure for providing services in each state. The strategies employed included demonstration projects, outreach and technical assistance activities, research institutes, training grants, and direct financial assistance to states. While this article is limited to the role of federal programs administered by OSEP, we would not want to suggest that federal education policy was the only force contributing to progress in early childhood. The Office of Special Education Programs administers the only program targeted exclusively for young children with disabilities, but many other federal agencies and state initiatives have supported the expansion of services to this population.

This article traces the development of federal policy in ECSE through what we characterize as the early, middle, and later years. Some of the major milestones in this history are summarized in Table 1. During the early years, the federal programs discussed in this article were administered by the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (BEH), under the Commissioner of the Office of Education, within the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. A separate U.S. Department of Education was created in 1980 and the programs are now administered by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

THE EARLY YEARS (1968-1974) The initial objective of federal special education policy for young children was to stimulate local programs and model practices. Federal support was provided to communities for programs for young children with disabilities with the hope that good programs would emerge and multiply. By the end of this phase, federal policy began to support state-level activities as well.

P.L. 90-538: "Seed Money" for

Demonstration Projects

During the 1960s, policymakers began to recognize the importance of early experiences for later development, as evidenced by the creation of programs such as Head Start. In 1968, Congress passed P.L. 90-538, which created the Handicapped Children's Early Education Program (HCEEP). P.L. 101-476 changed the name of this program to the Early Education Program for Children with Disabilities, as well as retitled the Education of the Handicapped Act to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. HCEEP was the first federal special education program targeted exclusively for the needs of young children with disabilities. P.L. 90-538 authorized the Commissioner of Education to award funds for the establishment of "experimental preschool and early education programs for handicapped children which . . . show promise of promoting a comprehensive and strengthened approach to the special problems of such children." [Sec. 2(a)]

Funds for this new program were viewed primarily as "seed money." Their principal intent was not to provide services but to stimulate activity in early childhood special education. Representative Carl Perkins, of the House Committee on Education and Labor, pointed out, "This program should be viewed as a model demonstration program not as a service program; however, programs that show promise of providing meaningful answers for education of handicapped children should at the appropriate time be evaluated for permanent legislative approval" (quoted in Roy Littlejohn Associates, 1982, p. 1).

The Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (BEH) funded the first 24 HCEEP demonstration projects in 1969-70. The goal of Congress in establishing the HCEEP was to stimulate interest in and explorations into the possibilities of early education for young children with disabilities. The demonstration projects funded through HCEEP were to provide a forum in which ideas might be tested, elaborated, and refined (Kennedy & McDaniels, 1982).

P.L. 91-230: Support for States

In 1970, Congress passed P.L. 91-230, which brought HCEEP and several other special education programs together under a single legislative authority, the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA). By including HCEEP in the consolidation, Congress indicated that it saw early childhood as an important part of its overall plan for the education of children with disabilities (Black, 1990).

The law also authorized the Commissioner of Education to make grants to assist states "in the initiation, expansion, and improvement of programs and projects for the education of handicapped children at the preschool, elementary school, and secondary school level" [Section 611(a)]. Funds could be used for the early identification and assessment of disabilities in children under age 3. This law was significant in that it provided states a source of funds which could be used to begin or expand services for young children. The state developed a plan for special education which was then submitted to the U.S. Office of Education for approval. The amount of the grant awarded to the state was determined by the state census count of children between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive.

P.L. 91-230 was a forerunner for future special education policy, but it was actually the second piece of legislation that provided direct payments to states for special education. P.L. 89-313, an amendment to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), had been passed in 1965. Title I dealt primarily with programs for disadvantaged children, but it contained one program for students with disabilities. This program provided grants to expand and improve the special education programs of such children in "state-operated" and "state-supported" schools. The state grant award was based on the number of children with disabilities birth through 20 years of age in such programs.

Although not primarily legislation for children with disabilities, P.L. 89-313 was important in moving the nation toward universally available early childhood services because it provided funds for programs for all children with disabilities, including infants. Many state-operated or state-supported programs served children birth through 5 years old. Title I, later renamed as Chapter 1, continues through 1991 as a source of federal funds for programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities.

Technical Assistance and Outreach BEH adopted two strategies in the early 1970s to encourage the sharing of information about ECSE. One was the creation of a technical assistance center for the HCEEP projects; the other was the establishment of outreach projects. Both of these continue to be critical components of HCEEP to the present.

The first technical assistance project was the Technical Assistance Development System (TADS) at the University of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, funded in 1971. TADS was established to provide program development assistance to the HCEEP demonstration projects. In 1983, the scope of technical assistance was expanded to include the states, as well as HCEEP projects.

Outreach projects were funded so that HCEEP demonstration projects that had developed an innovative model could share their project with those who might be interested in adopting or adapting the innovation (Black, 1990). Providing support to disseminate models of demonstrated effectiveness was seen as more cost effective than continually creating new models (Karnes & Stayton, 1988). In a position paper, the Division for Early Childhood of The Council for Exceptional Children maintained that the outreach projects were essential for making state-of-the-art knowledge in early childhood available to service providers and state planners (Garland, Black, & Jesien, 1986).

The first outreach projects were funded in 1972 as the initial set of demonstration projects reached the end of their 3 years of funding. Of the 22 demonstration projects completed in 1972, 19 (86%) were funded for outreach (Roy Littlejohn Associates, 1982). To be funded as an outreach project, a demonstration project had to show that it had located funds from other sources to continue to provide services to children, that other agencies were interested in learning about the project, and that the project was capable of providing assistance (Roy Littlejohn Associates, 1982).

P.L. 93-380: Setting Parameters for Service


Federal policy in early childhood began to focus more on the state level in the mid-1970s. With this new focus came increased regulation of service delivery. In 1974, a major step was taken in federal special education policy through a comprehensive set of amendments to Part B of the EHA. These amendments, P.L. 93-380, outlined significant new phased-in requirements for state education agencies (SEAs) in return for federal grants for services at the preschool, elementary, and secondary level. P.L. 93-380 added new requirements for state plans dealing with due process guarantees, "least restrictive environment" (LRE), nondiscriminatory testing and evaluation procedures, child identification, and the full services goal. P.L. 93-380 signaled the more stringent requirements that would be coming with P.L. 94-142.

THE MIDDLE YEARS (1975-1982)

The middle years of federal policy in early childhood opened with the passage of landmark special education legislation, P.L. 94-142. The impact of the legislation on infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, however, was not nearly as substantial as its impact on older children. The middle years were characterized by an increasing emphasis on regulating the provision of special education which, in some states, included services to 3- through 5-year-olds. Efforts directed toward building a state infrastructure for the universal provision of early childhood services were intensified. Efforts to stimulate knowledge and practice in ECSE continued through the support of model demonstrations, outreach, and research.

P.L. 94-142: Limited Mandate and Incentives

Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, mandated a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by September 1, 1980, for all eligible 3- through 21-year-olds. Building on P.L. 93-380, P.L. 94-142 incorporated all of the previous requirements (due process, LRE, etc.) and added others (individualized education programs or IEPs, specific procedural safeguards). The impact of P.L. 94-142 on children below school age was limited, however, because Congress stopped short of requiring FAPE for all 3- through 5-year-olds with disabilities. For these children, the mandate was accompanied by an exception: "except that, with respect to handicapped children aged three to five and eighteen to twenty-one, inclusive, the requirements . . . shall not be applied . . . if such requirements would be inconsistent with state law or practice, or the order of any court, respecting public education within such age groups in the state" [Section 612(2)(B)].

The failure of Congress to include young children in the mandate may have temporarily halted progress toward a national system of early childhood services. One consequence of the new law was that the focus of attention was clearly on the school-aged population. Compliance with the requirements for older children became an overriding priority in states (Black, 1990). A second consequence was that states without preschool mandates maintained more control over how they would serve 3- through 5-year-olds. If a state mandated services for any portion of the preschool-aged population, it had to provide them with the rights and protections of P.L. 94-142 (Smith, 1980). Except for a requirement that all children with disabilities be identified and evaluated, the law was silent with regard to the rights of infants and toddlers.

With P.L. 94-142 came a new formula by which federal support for special education was allocated to states. The previous distribution, based on a census count, was replaced by the use of an actual count of children ages 3 through 21 years served. A "child count"-based grant award encouraged the states to locate and serve more children with disabilities. States reported serving 196,223 children between the ages of 3 and 5 in 1977, the first year of the EHA child count. The per-child award for that year was $72. The award rose to $159 the following year and was $350 by 1990 (U.S. Department of Education, 1991).

Public Law 94-142 also created the Preschool Incentive Grant Program, which provided additional funds to encourage states to expand services for 3- through 5-year-olds. The Preschool Incentive Grant was a second formula grant award to states, in addition to the Part B funding, and was based on the number of children with disabilities aged 3 through 5 counted for the Part B grant. The value of the award as an incentive to expand services may have been somewhat questionable in the early years given the small amount of money states received. Although Congress had authorized up to $300 per child, it only appropriated sufficient funding for $63 per child for 1977. By 1980, the per-child amount was a little over $100 (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). The grants might also have been of limited incentive value because a child had to already be receiving services to be included in the count (Black, 1990). Fewer than half the states chose to participate in the first year of the program, but the number increased significantly after 1978 (U.S. Department of Education, 1984).

State Implementation Grants BEH took a major step toward building state capacity in 1976 with the creation of the first grant program directed toward encouraging state planning for the expansion of early childhood services. A component of HCEEP, the State Implementation Grants (SIGs), supported activities such as needs assessments, the convening of planning groups, the development and dissemination of plans, staff training, the development of program standards and guidelines, the development and support of consortia, and data collection and analysis (Black, 1990; Roy Littlejohn Associates, 1982). The SIGs were competitive; only 16 to 25 states received funding annually. The SIGs were 2-year awards, after which a state had to recompete to keep its state-level activities supported. If a state could not maintain continuous funding, the impact of the grant was often diminished.

By 1984, 43 states and territories had received SIG awards. A study by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and an analysis of state programs found that the SIGs had several outcomes, including the development of state capacity to initiate planning and the creation of structures within a state to help ensure the statewide provision of services. States indicated that these accomplishments would have been impossible without the grants (U.S. Department of Education, 1984).

Research Institutes In 1977, BEH established a new component of the HCEEP, the Early Childhood Research Institutes, to address the need for long-term research in typical service settings. Each institute was to select a focus from eight priority areas, such as home- versus center-based instructional programs, or methods of identifying and intervening with children at risk for a disability. In addition, each institute was required to develop methods for documenting interventions, describing the child's larger environment, describing child characteristics, and documenting child progress (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1977). The proposed institutes generated a great deal of interest in the field. Fifty-nine applications were submitted, of which 4 were funded (J. Hamilton, personal communication, January 25, 1991). Between 1982 and 1990, 10 more research institutes were funded, addressing areas such as effectiveness, mainstreaming, families, personnel, and policy. In addition to expanding the knowledge available in ECSE, the research institutes have increased the number of early childhood researchers through their support of graduate students.

HCEEP: A Successful Effort After 10 years of HCEEP, the evidence of the program's success began to accumulate. One evaluation demonstrated that participation in a demonstration project had a positive impact on children (Stock, et al., 1976). A second evaluation was conducted in 1981 to look at the impact of HCEEP on the service delivery system. By that time, 280 demonstration projects and 140 outreach projects had been funded. The total federal investment in demonstration projects was over $85 million; the figure for outreach was nearly $35 million.

The evaluators concluded that the accomplishments of the HCEEP projects were "greater and more varied than for any other documented education programs we have been able to identify" (Roy Littlejohn Associates, 1982, p. 149). Of the demonstration projects funded by HCEEP, 80% were able to locate funding to continue to operate after the end of the federal grant. These continuations served 30,600 children at no cost to HCEEP. William Swan, a program official in OSEP, saw three possible reasons for the high rate of continuation of these projects:

* Parents, project staff, and community leaders provided a critical mass of advocacy.

* HCEEP emphasized the importance of continuation funding and assisted projects to plan for obtaining it.

* The amount of money required to continue a project was relatively small (Swan, 1980).

The impact of the projects extended beyond the continuation funding. The 140 outreach projects were found to have produced 1,991 known replications of the models. These replications served nearly 108,000 children. For each child served in a demonstration project, 6.4 children received services through continuation and replication projects. For every HCEEP dollar invested in demonstration or outreach, $18.37 was generated in programming for children and families. In addition, the HCEEP projects had developed more than 3,000 products such as curriculum manuals, assessment instruments, videotapes, books, and brochures.

HCEEP was also instrumental in the creation of networks as a vehicle for interaction among individuals interested in early childhood. All of the HCEEP projects were part of the First Chance Network (DeWeerd & Cole, 1976). In addition, many groups within the First Chance Network formed their own groups. These included state groups such as the Illinois First Chance Consortium and the Virginia Association of First Chance Projects (Roy Littlejohn Associates, 1982). Other groups focused on special interests, such as rural or urban issues, minority and ethnic concerns, and infancy (Black, 1990). These networks functioned as vital communication links and would constitute an important force for shaping future early childhood policy at the state and federal levels. A significant event closely associated with the First Chance Network was the establishment of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) in 1973. While DEC was the product of the earlier CEC Preschool and Nursery Committee (established in 1964), many of DEC's early leaders were affiliated with HCEEP projects and networks (Garland et al., 1986).

LATER YEARS (1983-1990)

The level of activity in ECSE stimulated by HCEEP was far greater than anyone could have hoped. The seed money invested in HCEEP had become a veritable forest of widely disseminated model programs and innovative practices. But as rich as the return on the HCEEP projects had been, it had not produced an administrative infrastructure in the states. The seeds planted by demonstration and outreach projects would never sprout by themselves into a state system of intervention services.

The 1980s saw federal activity focus on building state-level systems of services. The need for interagency coordination had become apparent; the push to serve all eligible youngsters continued to gain momentum. The legislative goal of universally mandated service would be achieved with the passage of P.L. 99-457.

P.L. 98-199: State Planning Grants

Services to young children with disabilities had expanded by the early 1980s, but many challenges remained. All but 9 of 53 jurisdictions (50 states plus DC, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) either had or were developing ECSE program guidelines, or state rules, regulations, or standards. Furthermore, 16 states had certification procedures for ECSE teachers, and 20 were in the process of developing them (Trohanis, Woodward, & Behr, 1981). A study of implementation of P.L. 94-142 showed that in 1979, half of the school districts studied provided pre-school services. By 1982, nearly all had developed new programs or had refined or expanded existing programs. Districts reported that this expansion was primarily the result of the stimulus of federal assistance (Wright, Cooperstein, Renneker, & Padilla, 1982). States still needed more resources, more trained personnel, and more coordination among state agencies (U.S. Department of Education, 1981). The need to focus more attention on infants and toddlers was also recognized (U.S. Department of Education, 1984).

The Education of the Handicapped Act was amended again in 1983 by P.L. 98-199. P.L. 98-199 made major changes to the state planning grant component of HCEEP. Moving the United States ever closer to the goal of a system of early childhood services, Congress created a program to assist states in "planning, developing, and implementing a comprehensive delivery system for the provision of special education and related services to handicapped children birth through five years of age" (Section 623(b)(1)). These new grants, the State Plan Grants (SPGs), were not competitive; any state that applied could receive one. Congress came to recognize that there was a mosaic of programs in states targeted for young children and their families. Often personnel in these programs were unaware that similar or complimentary programs existed (Smith, 1986).

A comprehensive service delivery system would not be achieved without the cooperation of state agencies serving the target population. Accordingly, one of the goals of the SPGs was the coordination of existing services for young children with disabilities and their families.

The SPGs were designed to be a sequence of three grants to states. The first 2-year grant was for the assessment of needs and the establishment of a procedural plan for the development of a Comprehensive State Plan for children birth through 5. The second grant was a 3-year grant to develop and gain approval for the comprehensive plan. The last 3 years of funding was for implementation and evaluation of the plan. Every state and territory applied for a SPG.

The 1983 amendments to the EHA also made several significant changes in the Preschool Incentive Grant Program. Previously the funds could only be used to serve 3- through 5-year-olds. The amendments broadened the age range to include children birth through 5, although the amount of the award was still based on the number of 3- through 5-year-olds served. In 1983, 55 of 58 eligible jurisdictions participated in the program. States reported using their funds for a variety of activities, such as the provision of direct services; development of interagency agreements; creation of statewide technical assistance centers; provision of diagnostic services; and the training of parents and professional staff. The funding for the Preschool Incentive Grant Program had also grown substantially from $12.5 million in 1978 to $25 million in 1984 (U.S. Department of Education, 1984).

P.L. 99-457: Service for All

Following P.L. 98-199, which signaled congressional intent that states establish statewide planning and service mechanisms, Congress took the next step by passing P.L. 99-457 in 1986. The changes in federal policy contained in P.L. 99-457 have been described in detail elsewhere (e.g., Smith, 1988; Trohanis, 1989). Briefly, this important set of amendments to the EHA (a) extended the mandate for full services under Part B to 3-year-olds by 1992 and dramatically increased funding for preschool services through the Preschool Grant Program (Section 619), and (b) established a new program for infants, toddlers, and families (Part H), which had a full service goal for children aged birth through 2 years by a state's 5th year of participation. P.L. 99-457 represents a culmination of nearly 25 years of federal activity in early childhood special education.


The history of federal special education initiatives in early childhood provides insight into the importance of federal policy in promoting a national goal. The history also provides some guidance concerning how federal policy can be used to improve services for other populations with disabilities. The policies and programs that have evolved out of the various amendments to the Education of the Handicapped Act clearly have been critical to the progress achieved in early childhood to date. Our knowledge about how to provide services has grown exponentially due in part to federally funded research and demonstration efforts. This knowledge has been shared through meetings, materials, consultation, and other activities funded under technical assistance. Pre-service and inservice training programs and related curriculum materials have been developed. States are building an infrastructure for administering early childhood programs with, for example, the development of state policy and regulations, certification requirements, delineation of clear lines of administrative responsibility, and funding. Accomplishments at the local, state, and federal levels are being realized through the efforts of a political constituency of parents and professionals that federally funded programs helped to empower. It is difficult to imagine how these accomplishments could have been achieved without the purposeful evolution of federal policy.

Reviewing the legislative history in early childhood also reveals the limits of federal policy in achieving a national goal. Despite more than 20 years of activity, universally available early childhood services for children with disabilities regardless of where they live has not been achieved. Federal policy ultimately is limited in the extent to which it can make a sovereign state do what it has not committed itself to do. Whether or not the commitment that is hoped for is realized in each state will be determined by a number of factors, some of which are beyond the scope of federal policy. These factors include the effectiveness of citizen advocacy within the state; leadership within the state legislature and state government; the existence and relative strength of competing priorities for state resources; and, of course, the economy of the state. Federal policy can point the way and certainly help with funding, but the commitment that will ultimately achieve the final goal must come at the state and local levels.

A program such as HCEEP exemplifies the unique federal role in the improvement of programs. Through HCEEP grants, the discovery and development of new knowledge is constantly being explored by innovative model programs and research institutes. The demonstration models have continued to respond to societal needs by developing ways to serve new and previously underserved populations (Suarez, Hurth, & Prestridge, 1988). HCEEP outreach, inservice training, and technical assistance programs facilitate the transfer of knowledge on a national scale. It is unlikely that any loose confederation of state programs and private sector projects could keep track of the evolving national issues and priorities, let alone plan and orchestrate a coordinated national response in the way HCEEP has done over the years.

The amount of change in ECSE in recent years is remarkable. It didn't happen overnight or by coincidence. It is hoped that federal policy will continue to evolve and find additional ways to support and shape the continued development of a national system of early childhood services.


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Karnes, M.B., & Stayton, V.D. (1988). Model programs for infants and toddlers with handicaps. In J. B. Jordon, J.J. Gallagher, P.L. Hutinger, & M. B. Karnes (Eds.), Early childhood special education: Birth to three (pp. 67-108). Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.

Kennedy, M. M., & Mc Daniels, G. L. (1982). Informing policy makers about programs for handicapped children. In J. R. Travers & R. J. Light (Eds.), Evaluating early childhood demonstration programs (pp. 163-186). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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Suarez, T. M., Hurth, J. L., Prestridge, S. (1988). Innovation in service for young children with handicaps and their families: An analysis of the Handicapped Children's Early Education Program Projects funded from 1982 to 1986. Journal of the Division for Early Childhood, 12, 224-237

Swan, W. W. (1980). The Handicapped Children's Early Education Program. Exceptional Children, 47, 12-16.

Trohanis, P.L. (1989). An introduction to PL 99-457 and the national policy agenda for serving young children with special needs and their families. In J.J. Gallagher, P.L. Trohanis, & R. M. Clifford (Eds.), Policy implementation and PL 99-457: Planning for young children with special needs (pp. 1-17). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Trohanis, P., Woodward, M., & Behr, S. (1981). Services for young exceptional children. Exceptional Parent, 2(1), 13-20.

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U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. (1991). Thirteenth annual report to Congress on the implementation of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education, (1977). Request for proposal (RFP No. 77-18). Washington, DC: Author.

Wright, A. R., Cooperstein, R. A., Renneker, E. G., & Padilla, C. (1982). Local implementation of P.L. 94-142: Final report of a longitudinal study. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Trends and Issues in Early Intervention; the evolution of federal law regarding the education of children with disabilities
Author:Hebbeler, Kathleen M.; Smith, Barbara J.; Black, Talbot L.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:Really Now, Why Can't Our Johnnies Read?
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