Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975-1989; a Judicial History

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975-1989; a Judicial History

Article excerpt



In 1975, The U.S. Congress passed and President Ford signed into law Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA). Legal milestones established by the Federal courts shape the resolution of the ongoing legal challenges to make "a free appropriate education" available to all individuals between the ages of three and twenty-one. Despite the considerable specificity of P.L. 94-142 and its implementing regulations over the past 15 years, the courts have still been required to play a major role in determining the meaning of the Act's provisions.


The leading judicial opinion interpreting the Act was that of the U.S. Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Rowley.[1] Most child advocates were greatly disappointed with the Rowley decision. Unlike lower courts that had heard the case, the high Court rejected arguments that children with disabilities should be provided services sufficient to enable them to achieve their full potential. It held instead that a child with a disability was entitled to "personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit them to benefit educationally from that instruction."[2]

It did not, however, establish a standard for how great that benefit must be. The Court said Congress' intent was "more to open the door of public education than to guarantee any particular level of education once inside."[3]

However, the Rowley opinion did affirm the right of children with disabilities: (1) to be educated by public schools

without charge; (2) to be provided with individualized,

beneficial, "meaningful" services,

designed through the individualized

educational plan (IEP) process; (3) to be "mainstreamed" where possible; (4) to receive an instructional program that

approximates the grade levels used in

the state's regular education program; (5) to be provided with related and

supportive services needed to derive

benefit from their special education; (6) to have parents or guardians actively

involved in the planning of their

education; (7) to challenge the adequacy of their

education programs in due process

hearings; and (8) to challenge in federal court both the

substance of their IEP and the

procedures afforded for its

development and review.

Lower federal courts, continuing an earlier line of decisions,[4] found support in Rowley for a right to an extended school year for those children with severe disabilities whose IEPs called for this. They held that state policies limiting education to 180 days precluded individualized consideration and instruction and failed to provide "the basic floor of opportunity" embodied in the Act.[5]

In Rowley, the Supreme Court recognized that, in drafting 94-142, "Congress sought to protect individual children by providing for parental involvement in...the formulation of the child's individual education program."[6] The Court observed that," parents and guardians will not lack ardor in seeking to ensure that handicapped children receive all of the benefits to which they are entitled by the Act."[7]


On July 5, 1984, in Smith v. Robinson,[8] the Supreme Court ruled that successful plaintiffs in P.L. 94-142 suits could, in most cases, no longer be awarded attorneys' fees. The Act itself made no mention of such awards, and the Court found that the practice, common until then, of claiming fee awards under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or under a Civil Rights Act provision, amounted to an improper circumvention of the EAHCA's comprehensive provisions. This decision could have dealt a severe blow, since most parents are financially unable to bear the expense of a court challenge when their child's educational rights are being violated. …

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