How did we get where we are today?
Special education is intended to provide services to students who have disabilities, and who, because of those disabilities, need help to make progress in the general education program of the school. Following are selected milestones from the past thirty years:
- In July 1972, Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent signed into law Chapter 766 of the Acts of 1972, the Massachusetts special education law.
- In 1974, the U.S. Congress passed the Education of the Handicapped Act, the federal special education law, modeled in part on the Massachusetts statute.
- In 1986, the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight released a report on special education highlighting the high percentage of students needing special education in Massachusetts as compared to the nation. The report called for reforms.
- In August 1991, the Massachusetts Department of Education submitted a report to the Legislature entitled A Review of the Eligibility Criteria for Children with Special Needs. This report recommended: change in the statutory definition of “a school age child with special needs;” the development of statewide eligibility guidelines to ensure clarity and consistency of application of the special education statute across local school districts; and a comprehensive guidelines training program for professionals and parents. The report’s recommendations came with an overall statement that adequate fiscal resources must be provided to strengthen the educational system’s capacity to meet the learning needs of all students.
- In January 1992, Massachusetts Governor Weld signed into law legislation that amended the definition of a school age child with special needs to incorporate use of the term “disability” for the first time in the Massachusetts statute.
- In 1993, Governor Weld signed into law the Massachusetts Education Reform Act that required sweeping reforms, statewide accountability measures, and high standard for all students, including students with disabilities. Attached were billions of new dollars added to the state budget for implementation of education reforms.
- In 1997, the U.S. Congress reauthorized the federal special education law, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Congress emphasized that a major purpose of special education was to ensure access to the general curriculum and required that all students with disabilities participate in statewide assessment programs.
- In 2000, the Massachusetts Board of Education adopted major revisions to the state special education regulations, requiring for the first time the identification of a type of disability upon determining eligibility for special education services.
- In 2000, Governor Cellucci signed into law major special education reforms. New requirements included: (a) the use of federal definitions for Specific Learning Disabilities and Serious Emotional Disturbance, and (b) an overhaul of the funding of special education. Additionally, the state statute authorizing special education was revised throughout to incorporate use of the term “child with a disability” in place of the term “child with special needs.”
All of these activities have clarified that special education is intended to address the effect of the disability on the student’s progress and to mitigate any barriers or problems that arise because of the disability. Special education is a program of services to provide, as much as possible, access to services so that students with disabilities have the best chance to receive the full educational benefit of the district’s programs.
Learning and performance expectations apply equally to all students, including students with disabilities.