Federal Early Childhood Special Education Policy: A Model for the Improvement of Services for Children with Disabilities

By Hebbeler, Kathleen M.; Smith, Barbara J. et al. | Exceptional Children, October-November 1991 | Go to article overview

Federal Early Childhood Special Education Policy: A Model for the Improvement of Services for Children with Disabilities


Hebbeler, Kathleen M., Smith, Barbara J., Black, Talbot L., Exceptional Children


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. …

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