45 Years Old – Are the Purposes of Chapter 766 Being Achieved?

September 2019 will be the 45th anniversary of the effective date of the special education reform act known as “Chapter 766.” (Although Chapter 766 was adopted in 1972, its full implementation was delayed for two years to allow educators and agencies time to prepare.)

Five years ago we checked in with readers to invite their comments on whether the stated purposes of Chapter 766 were being met.  Comments from some of the advocates and political leaders who were behind the legislation in 1972 were eloquent, insightful and heartfelt. They included, for example, the following from Martha Ziegler, a great civil rights leader whose work in 1972 organizing the widely disparate interest groups of the world of disability advocacy into a cohesive lobbying force was a key factor in the success of the movement, as was her later work founding and presiding over the Federation for Children With Special Needs.

Celebrating the enormous changes she had witnessed in the general culture’s attitudes toward those with disabilities, Ms. Ziegler described her then 50-year old daughter’s experience having to undergo breast surgery and the beautifully accepting hospital staff’s interactions with Martha and her daughter, saying, “All have been totally accepting, understanding, and sympathetic with her. Some even were eager to learn more about autism! As I have thought about this situation, I realize how much our world has changed in the last 40 years. Before 766 (and other changes in state and federal law) most of the people serving Mary Ann in this challenge would have kept social distance from her. Further, they would have had no idea how to communicate with her or me and it would not have occurred to them that Mary Ann should participate in the crucial decisions about her treatment.”

Another comment was offered by David Bartley who had been the Speaker of the House in 1972.  Mr. Bartley had joined Mike Daly, the House Chairman of the Committee on Education at the Mass. Legislature to co-sponsor what became Chapter 766.   Looking back 40 years, Mr. Bartley noted that he, like Representative Daly, regarded their work in bringing Chapter 766 into being as one of their “proudest achievements.” He said: “Mike and I were both teachers before we entered politics. We were each intimately aware of some of the shortcomings within our public education system – especially as that system neglected children with disabilities – and it was in the special education reform act that we each felt we’d best realized the goals we shared to use the power of our offices to improve that system.”  Mr. Bartley went on to note: “As for how well the purposes of 766 have been achieved, I believe that in large part they have done so beautifully, with great numbers of students who, before Chapter 766, would likely have fallen through the cracks now served with fine-tuned teaching and supports. At the same time, for many reasons – fiscal, political and otherwise – all too many children are still under-served across the state, and some of the basic systems we put in place to hold school systems accountable have proven effective primarily for families with means and not so much for those without.”

Now, five more years into the life of Chapter 766, we again invite parents, school professionals – both private and public -, advocates and experts to contribute their thoughts as they review the purposes that were outlined in the legislation that became Chapter 766.  We look forward to seeing comments from all quarters.  Succinct and thoughtful contributions are greatly welcomed; lengthy diatribes, not so much!

What follows was written as a purpose preamble for Chapter 766.  To what extent have the purposes described here been achieved and where have we fallen short … so far? What say you?  

The General Court [note: this term means the legislature of Massachusetts] finds that past development of special education programs has resulted in a great variation of services to children with special needs with some children having a greater educational opportunity than others in less favored categories or environments.  The General Court further finds that past methods of labeling and defining the needs of children have had a stigmatizing effect and have caused special education programs to be overly narrow and rigid, both in their content and their inclusion and exclusion policies.

In the light of the policy of the commonwealth to provide an adequate, publicly supported education to every child resident therein, it is the purpose of this act to provide for a flexible and uniform system of special education program opportunities for all children requiring special education; to provide a flexible and non-discriminatory system for identifying and evaluating the individual needs of children requiring special education; requiring evaluation of the needs of the child and adequacy of the special education program before placement and periodic evaluation of the benefit of the program to the child and the nature of the child’s needs thereafter; and to prevent denials of equal educational opportunity on the basis of national origin, sex, economic status, race, religion, and physical or mental handicap in the provision of differential education services.

This act is designed to remedy past inadequacies and inequities by defining the needs of children requiring special education in a broad and flexible manner, leaving it to state agencies to provide more detailed definitions which recognize that such children have a variety of characteristics and needs, all of which must be considered if the educational potential of each child is to be realized; by providing the opportunity for a full range of special education programs for children requiring special education; by requiring that a program which holds out the promise of being special actually benefits children assigned thereto; and by replacing the present inadequate and anti-equalizing formula for distribution of state aid for special education programs with an equalizing one which encourages cities, towns and regional school districts to develop adequate special education programs within a reasonable period of time.

Recognizing that professional services and resources must be made available to cities, towns and regional school districts on a regional basis if this act is to be implement successfully, and within a reasonable period of time, this act strengthens and regionalizes the division of special education in the department of education and provides for and urges meaningful cooperation among agencies concerned with children with special needs.

Recognizing, finally, that present inadequacies and inequities in the provision of special education services to children with special needs have resulted largely from a lack of significant parent and lay involvement in overseeing, evaluating and operating special education programs, this act is designed to build such involvement through the creation of regional and state advisory committees with significant powers and by specifying an accountable procedure for evaluating each child’s special needs thoroughly before placement in a program and periodically thereafter.

We add here that one of Chapter 766’s most important and, indeed, revolutionary features was its creation of a due process system under which disputes between parents and school districts could be decided by impartial hearing officers.  (Federal special education law followed that model a short time later in the Education of All the Handicapped Children Act (now “IDEA”).)  That provision was meant to create an evidence-based system by which an objective and impartial adjudicator could be educated about a child’s needs and the options for meeting those needs under the standards of the law, decide what services and placement s/he is entitled to under that law, and issue orders to ensure that s/he is provided with those services and placement.

Please feel free to comment on the due process features of Chapter 766 along with any of the other purposes described in the Purpose Preamble as we consider together the evolution and, by implication, the future of this nearly 45-year-old revolution.

Robert Crabtree serves of counsel in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

4 thoughts on “45 Years Old – Are the Purposes of Chapter 766 Being Achieved?

  1. Without a doubt, much has improved over time and the list is lengthy. The Transition Planning regulations have been a huge boon to students readying themselves for young adulthood and future employment. Community organizations and PACS have strengthened as parental empowerment has grown. And individuals with disabilities have felt more empowered, forging their own paths towards into the future, and as advocacy communities on behalf of those who follow in their footsteps.

    However, much remains to be done. Funding inadequacies often drive decisions about everything from programs and placements, to class sizes and staffing, to basic materials like books and paper not to mention technology. School cultures are still somewhat stuck in old habits of thinking about the goals of special education, and about education generally. Neurologically-based disabilities and mental illness are much better understood and accepted, but stigmas and misconceptions continue to undermine implementation of effective interventions. The symptoms of depression or anxiety are still misunderstood as laziness or lack of motivation.

    Although parents with financial means still fare better than those who struggle from week to week, even smart parents with money are confounded by the process. School staff who receive inadequate professional support, guidance, and resources can unintentionally create confusion. Mistrust and acrimony replaces the spirit of collaboration envisioned by the original authors of Chapter 766.

    Frankly, without a state agency like the Office for Children providing free special education information, student advocacy services, and support for community organizers, parents are often at a loss. Individual students are deprived of services. Districts are deprived of resources. And statewide trends are inadequately identified and addressed by the state.

    Nonetheless, for those of us who are still in the mix, we do well to remember Ted Kennedy’s exhortation at the Democratic National Convention in August 1980: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

  2. As parents of a child who benefited from Chapter 766 as well as the federal special education law, IDEA, we are grateful for the efforts of the many people, who like Bob Crabtree, were “in the room where it happened.”

    As far as due process in Chapter 766 is concerned, we have come to realize that this is perhaps the law’s most important feature. Because, regardless of all the law’s other regulations, they are only as useful as they are enforceable. It is the due process rights written into Chapter 766 that give parents the ability to seek redress from a reluctant school district and “encourage” school districts to fulfill their obligations to the students in their charge.

    Can due process in Chapter 766 be made more accessible and streamlined? Of course. However, that is a political decision and not the way the law is written. Just as with the mobilization of parents and advocates to pass Chapter 766 in 1972, it will take a rising tide of parents and advocates to put irresistible pressure on local school districts and politicians to pay more than lip service to the law’s mandate. In short, the more parents educate themselves about their child’s rights and hold their schools and politicians accountable to enforce these rights, the more schools and politicians will act toward fulfilling the promise of Chapter 766 and IDEA.

    Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
    co-authors of “Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work” by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

  3. The Special Education revolution that began in 1972 with Chapter 766, and was extended to the federal level with PL 94-142, were but the first steps in a never-ending endeavor. Real revolutions– voting rights, civil rights, gender equality– never end because the forces of regression never quit.

    But it would be a terrible mistake to judge 766 by looking only at what still needs to be done, because more will always need to be done. All of us, together, pulled off a revolt against the ugly status quo that was rather quickly begun by locking in rights and due process procedures for children with special needs, thus altering the responsibilities and expectations of public schools forever. And it is a revolution that will last because of the power of parents and advocates that embodied it.

    Like all revolutions, it began from the ground up and involved ordinary people from many different walks of life. We were naive, we were resolute, we were demanding, and we learned as we went. But this is always the way of monumental social change movements. Ordinary people embody the most extraordinary capacities of humans, and we began something that will never end but will always have to be nurtured in order to sustain it.

    J. Larry Brown
    Founding Director, Massachusetts Advocacy Center (now Mass Advocates for Children)

    • Larry:
      Thanks so much for your comment. You were an inspiring and empowering leader yourself at the outset with the Task Force on Children Out of School and your directorship for years of the Mass Advocates for Children, and you continue to be one now with an even broader portfolio as you work internationally through Chances For Children International. It’s great to see you continuing the good fight, even at your unspeakably advanced age ( :-)) .I urge readers of our blog to check out the organization at chancesforchildreninternational.org.
      All the best,
      Bob

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