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Setting a precedent.

My wife, Peggy, tells a story about our early years in Washington, D.C., while I was on leave from a university faculty working as staff director for the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Handicapped. It is about a conversation I don't remember. One night during dinner I expressed my happiness about Congress passing a piece of legislation I had helped draft, and I said, "We did something today that is going to help one million children with disabilities."

She said later that she knew at that time that we would not soon be returning to the campus, and she was right. I had learned that I could use my professional training to affect public policy and hopefully help many children.

The act she referred to was the first "Education of the Handicapped Act" in 1966, which for the first time began to provide federal funds to the states for the "initiation, improvement or expansion" of programs to educate children with disabilities. As significant as that legislation was (it also created a top-level federal agency -- the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, BEH), there was an even more significant event still to come.

By 1972, I had the privilege of serving as Deputy Commissioner of Education and Director of the BEH, a part of the U.S. Office of Education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The BEH played a leadership role in developing federal policy affecting education of children with disabilities. It was also responsible for administering federal programs which helped train teachers, assist states and local school districts with support for programming and provide funds for research, demonstration and the development of new and better ways to educate children with disabilities.

The year 1972 found me immersed in a campaign to create a policy that would correct a terrible wrong. Across the nation, parents found their children with disabilities being turned away from schools, inappropriately served or attending schools but not reveiving special education assistance.

Only a relatively few children with disabilities, estimated at one or two out of five, were in special education classes or programs. No state was serving all its children with disabilities, and even in the few states that had "mandatory" laws requiring such programming, there were either exemptions permitted or the laws were not fully implemented or enforced.

In the winter of 1969, as President Nixon planned to take office, I joined with Fred Weintraub of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) in urging the Nixon "transition team" to make a commitment to children with disabilities a part of their administration. We pushed that agenda again with the President's Bureau of the Budget, but ultimately the administration decided that the burden of financing school services should be on the states and the federal role should be limited to such activities as research and teacher education grants.

When a new education commissioner joined the Nixon administration in 1971, I urged him to make education of children with disabilities one of his major priorities. Sidney P. Marland agreed, and once again we approached the Bureau of the Budget, but with no greater success.

We decided to change our wording, and instead of declaring it a national goal, we "called for the development of a national goal of educating all handicapped children by 1980." To implement that goal, we stimulated grass-roots activities, making a film of Commissioner Marland urging such a goal and circulating it to every state education agency.

In addition, I worked with various groups to adopt the goal, chief among them the CEC, our partner for all practical purposes, and the Education Commission of the States (ECS). The ECS is an organization involving governors, state legislators and state school board officials. The CEC developed a model state law and we introduced it to state legislators through ECS conferences. Bit by bit, laws were strengthened in virtually every state.

Meanwhile in Washington, a significant event had occurred. Lisa Walker, a political scientist working as a staff assistant to Sen. Harrison Williams, called to tell me that Sen. Williams, then Chairman of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, had agreed to name a special subcommittee on people with disabilities and sponsor major legislation. She was looking for good ideas.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. John Brademas expressed a similar interest and his counsel, Jack Duncan, began meeting with Lisa, Fred Weintraub and me. As we progressed, many other organizations and individuals became involved. We began drafting what was to become a major national law and a model for other nations.

A very significant event occurred in 1971 when a federal district court in Pennsylvania issued what is called a consent decree, an agreement between plaintiff and defendant to certain conditions which resolve a lawsuit. In this case, the issue was whether or not Pennsylvania could deny educational opportunities to children with mental retardation.

This landmark case, often called the PARC (Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children) case, indicated that federal courts were seeing educational opportunity as something akin to a constitutional right. At least education could not be provided on a discriminatory basis. The following year, another federal court, this time in the District of Columbia, expanded the ruling to cover children with all kinds of disabilities, not just mental retardation.

In a very real sense, the pieces in the puzzle were fitting together -- a documented need, action at the state level which created a need for more funds, federal and state courts pushing for equal treatment under the law and legislation pending in Congress which would greatly increase funding to the local school districts and protect the rights of children with disabilities and their parents.

The Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (BEH) provided a central government agency for coordinating efforts and supplying information, resources and considerable advocacy, despite the continuing reluctance of the Nixon and Ford administrations to commit major federal funds to the effort. As director of the BEH, I was able to work effectively with congressional staff members and with parents and professionals to advance the legislation.

In 1975, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act was passed and acknowledged by advocates and detractors to be the most far-reaching education/consumer rights legislation ever to be passed by Congress. Today more than 4.6 million children benefit from its provisions and Congress appropriates more than $2 billion annually to assist in educating those children.

For me it represents a triumph of our U.S system of government for this basic reason -- it passed, not as a result of massive lobbies or large amounts of financial backing, but on the basis of its merits, in response to citizen need and advocacy.
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Title Annotation:special education
Author:Martin, Edwin
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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