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.