Impact of Diana, Larry P., and P.L. 94-142 on Minority Students

Article excerpt

Impact of Diana, Larry P., and P.L. 94-142 on Minority Students

During the past two decades, changes in special education for educable mentally retarded (EMR) children were sought on behalf of minority-group children through the courts. The two landmark cases, Diana v. State Board of Education (1970) and Larry P. v. Wilson Riles (1971), were both brought in the state of California, where plaintiffs emphasized the disproportionately high minority enrollments in EMR programs. Both cases were decided in favor of the plaintiffs and caused dramatic changes in the identification of EMR children and in their education programming. Moreover, many of the points made by the plaintiffs in these cases were ultimately incorporated into Public Law (P.L.) 94-142 (1975) in the form of provisions ensuring due process, parental involvement, nondiscriminatory assessment, and placement into the least restrictive environment.

Changes in special education policy affecting minority children from poor backgrounds might be viewed as victories--at least in the political sense--in that advocates were successful in forcing change on an educational establishment reluctant to change. Other changes have occurred, such as the modification of the concept of mild mental retardation (Polloway & Smith, 1985), full implementation of P.L. 94-142, and a renewed emphasis on excellence in general education (National Commission of Excellence in Education, 1983). These changes alter the context in which the effects of change in EMR identification and programming must be considered.

It has been close to 15 years since Diana and Larry P. were originally heard and 10 years since the passage of P.L. 94-142. Here we examine the assumption of some that liberation from special classes is necessarily a sign that the liberated children and their peers are being well served. This examination considers the extent to which the modifications in assessment and programming have impacted racial isolation noted in EMR programs of the 1960s, the possibility of "reverse racism" in identification, options for serving children in the IQ range 70-85, and the educational plight of marginally achieving minority children who were the focus of the earlier court cases. To this end, extant empirical evidence and the experiences in California are examined. The overarching concern of the authors is that poor minority students in the public schools continue to be inadequately served, and that the need to advance the quality of education afforded these students is every bit as urgent today as it was in the late 1960s. To be sure, the questions to be asked may differ from those raised previously.


Gottlieb (1981) noted that a major impetus for abolishing self-contained special classes for EMR children was that the classes were racially segregated. From that vantage point, it is instructive to examine the extent to which current practices, designed to be nonbiased, have altered the ethnic balance in EMR classes. Further, we examine the ethnic composition of classes into which EMR children are "mainstreamed," and the extent to which racial isolation is found in schools.

California Enrollments

Between 1969 and 1977 enrollments in EMR programs were affected by the mandate in Diana requiring reevaluation of California's EMR students. Lambert (1981) reported a reduction in the total number of EMR students from 55,519 in 1969 to 19,370; however, this reduction only slightly corrected the disproportionately high minority percentages. The percent of Black students in EMR declined from 27.1% to 23.2% whereas Hispanic enrollment went from 28.2% to 22.6% in this period. Reschly (1985) observed, however, that the magnitude of overrepresentation can also be gauged by considering the percent of Black and Hispanic students served as EMR. In 1969, California enrolled 3.2% of Black students and 2.6% of Hispanic students in EMR. …