History of Special Education Legislation

Updated April 17, 2017

Prior to the civil rights movement and the 1954 landmark legislation Brown v. Board of Education, children with disabilities were denied their right to a free public education. Compulsory education laws passed in 1918 made no discernible impact on the education of children with disabilities. Families, frustrated with the exclusionary status-quo mentality, began forming advocacy groups to force the nation's state school systems to serve children with special needs.

The 1960s

In 1965, Title VI was added to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This action created the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped. At this time, educating students with disabilities was not mandated by federal or state law. The passage of Title VI was an announcement to the field of public education that change was coming.

The 1970s

In 1972, two separate courts took the position that children with disabilities had equal rights to educational access. These decisions resulted in students with disabilities, who resided within the jurisdiction of these courts, beginning to attend state schools.

In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act made it compulsory that persons could not be discriminated against due to having a disability. Although the intention of this legislation was to be inclusive of all persons regardless of age, state schools did not react to it in that manner.

In 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gave parents access to all personally identifiable information that was collected and maintained regarding their child.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) was passed and mandated state schools provide educational services to students with disabilities.

In 1977, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act final regulations were published. The rules defined in the regulations how state schools were to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

The 1980s

In 1986, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was amended with the Handicapped Children's Protection Act. This change was made to clarify that students and parents have rights under both the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The 1990s

In 1992, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed into law. The ADA adopted Section 504 regulations. The impact of this was that students who were not found eligible for special education services, but had learning difficulties, were provided with Section 504 plans.

In 1990, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was amended and called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This amendment made many changes to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. One of the most significant was the inclusion of the requirement that schools conduct transition planning for secondary students who were preparing for graduation.

The 2000s

In 2001, No Child Left Behind was enacted stipulating all students, including those with disabilities, would reach proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

IDEA was reauthorised in 2004.

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About the Author

Mary Johnson-Gerard began writing professionally in 1975 and expanded to writing online in 2003. She has been published on the Frenzyness Divorce Blog and on Neumind International Pte Ltd. Her book "When Divorce Hurts Too Long—Ouch" was published in 2009. Johnson-Gerard holds a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Missouri.