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Why Are Laws Governing the Education of Exceptional Children Necessary? (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Separate Is Not Equal

The history of special education, especially in regard to the education of children with disabilities in regular public schools, is related to the civil rights movement. Special education was strongly influenced by social developments and court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). This case challenged the practice of segregating students according to race. In its ruling in the Brown case, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that education must be made available to all children on equal terms:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditure for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic responsibilities. . . . In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954)

The Brown decision began a period of intense concern and questioning among parents of children with disabilities, who asked why the same principles of equal access to education should not apply to their children. Numerous court cases were initiated in the 1960s and early 1970s by parents and other advocates dissatisfied with an educational system that denied equal access to children with disabilities. Generally, the parents based their arguments on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that no state shall deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law and that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

Equal Protection

In the past, children with disabilities usually received differential treatment; that is, they were excluded from certain educational programs or were given special education only in segregated settings. Basically, when the courts have been asked to rule on the practice of denial and segregation, judges have examined whether such treatment is rational and whether it is necessary. One of the most historically significant cases to examine these questions was the class-action suit Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1972). The association challenged a state law that denied public school education to certain children considered “unable to profit from public school attendance.”

The lawyers and parents supporting PARC argued that even though the children had intellectual disabilities, it was neither rational nor necessary to assume they were ineducable and untrainable. Because the state was unable to prove that the children were, in fact, ineducable or to demonstrate a rational need for excluding them from public school programs, the court decided that the children were entitled to receive a free, public education. In addition, the court maintained that parents had the right to be notified before any change was made in their children’s educational program.

The wording of the PARC decision proved particularly important because of its influence on subsequent federal legislation. Not only did the court rule that all children with mental retardation were entitled to a free, appropriate public education, but the ruling also stipulated that placements in regular classrooms and regular public schools were preferable to segregated settings.

It is the Commonwealth’s obligation to place each mentally retarded child in a free, public program of education and training appropriate to the child’s capacity. . . . placement in a regular public school class is preferable to placement in a special public school class and placement in a special public school is preferable to placement in any other type of program of education and training. (PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1972)

In addition to the Brown and PARC cases, several other judicial decisions have had far-reaching effects on special education. The rulings of some of these cases were incorporated into subsequent federal legislation, notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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