Public Law 94-142 (P.L. 94-142), the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, is the only piece of federal legislation widely known among psychologists and their students by its numerical designation, perhaps because its impact on the nation’s educational practices and on the profession has been so profound. Prior to the passage of this law, which took effect in the 1976–1977 academic year, school systems were legally free to turn away students whose disabilities they were poorly equipped to handle, causing the availability of special education services to vary widely. Furthermore, without a standard approach to the provision of those services, the quality and the appropriateness of the resulting education varied widely as well.
P.L. 94-142 set out to rectify the situation by mandating that appropriate special education services be made available to all school-age children, and by providing federal funds to help meet that goal. The law also includes the ﬁrst federal legal deﬁnitions of both mental retardation and learning disabilities. Many standard practices in the psychological assessment of disabled children followed directly from the provisions of this law, especially its provisions to ensure that every child receives an education that is appropriate for that particular child. The law requires that every disabled student receives an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) based on a thorough assessment by a multidisciplinary team (a psychologist, educational professionals, and the child’s parents, among others). The IEP describes both short-term and long-term goals, as well as clear plans for achieving them. It also speciﬁes how progress toward those goals will be assessed. The approval of the child’s parents is required before the IEP may be implemented. The law also includes a due process clause that guarantees an impartial hearing to resolve any conﬂicts that may arise between the parents and the school system.
The law requires that the child must be placed in the least restrictive environment possible. This is the clause that led to the widespread mainstreaming of mentally and physically disabled children, allowing them the greatest possible opportunity to interact with nondisabled children. Separate schooling is now allowed only when the level of disability renders achievement of the child’s educational goals impossible in the regular classroom.
In 1986, P.L. 99-457 amended P.L. 94-142 by including the provision that the original law should also apply to preschool children. Children aged three to ﬁve are now also entitled to a free and appropriate public education. As an incentive, the law also provides federal funds to states that provide educational services to disabled infants and toddlers and their families. The 1997 revision of the law, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), reafﬁrms the provisions of the earlier laws and extends the provision of special accommodations for students with learning disabilities to college-level education.
P.L. 94-142 and its progeny have so altered the American educational landscape in so brief a time that it is very difﬁcult for today’s students to grasp how different things used to be. The media often reminds us of the ugly old days of racial segregation, but people seem to have forgotten as a nation that there was a time when a handicapped child could be refused an education by a public school—a clear sign of how much progress has been made.
- Salvia, J., and Ysseldyke, J. Assessment in Special and Remedial Education. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifﬂin, 1988.