The legislative and litigation history of special education
Between the mid 1960s and 1975, state legislatures, the federal courts, and the U.S. Congress spelled out strong educational rights for children with disabilities. Forty-five state legislatures passed laws mandating, encouraging, and/or funding special education programs. Federal courts, interpreting the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ruled that schools could not discriminate on the basis of disability and that parents had due process rights related to their children's schooling. Congress, in legislation now retitled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), laid out detailed procedural protections regarding eligibility for special educational services, parental rights, individualized education programs (IEPs), the requirement that children be served in the least restrictive environment, and the need to provide related (noneducational) services. Decisions on instructional matters such as curricula and the elements of the IEP remain the province of local and state authorities. Advocates for students with disabilities have continually sought separate (categorical) funding for special education services. Current movements toward block grants rather than categorical programs and toward greater inclusion of special education students in general education classrooms raise concerns in some quarters about whether students with disabilities will continue to have full access to the special services they need. While the cost of special services may be an unexpressed criterion in many decisions made by school districts, nowhere does the IDEA explicitly allow cost to be considered. Where a service is necessary for an individual child, cost considerations would not allow a school district to escape its obligations to the child. However, in instances where more than one appropriate configuration of services is available to meet a child's needs, the school district may be allowed to consider the cost of different alternatives.