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By Daniel J. Vance


  November 28, 1975, was a great day in American history, yet few celebrate or appreciate its significance.

  The date marks the signing of Public Law 94-142, which compelled states receiving federal funds to develop and implement policies assuring a free, appropriate public education to all children with disabilities. In 1990, Congress amended Public Law 94-142 and renamed it the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

  "The federal government became involved [with 94-142] because children with disabilities were being denied the opportunity to attend public schools with their non-disabled neighbors," said Dr. Robert Pasternack, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Dept. of Education. "Not only were a million students being denied, but also another 3.5 million weren't receiving appropriate services. That has changed. Now 6.5 million American students with disabilities receive special education. Kids with disabilities should have the same opportunities."

  Dr. Pasternack is the highest-ranking federal official specific to special education and rehabilitative services, and advises U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

  He said that President Bush's October 2001 establishment of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education has helped take special education to the next level, enhancing IDEA. In July 2002, the President's Commission recommended these three things: that special education primarily should be results-, rather than process-oriented; that schools should prevent learning disabilities through early intervention; and that children with disabilities should first be the responsibility of the general education system.

  Of the three, the second point seems to bring out Dr. Pasternack's passion. "The law currently recognizes thirteen categories of eligibility for special education," he said. "In our annual report to Congress, not yet made public, the American public will see that 60 percent of special education students are in the "specific learning disabilities" category, and the majority of those aren't identified until after age 11. An overwhelming number of students in that category are there because they can't read. Many could read if taught by highly qualified teachers using scientifically based teaching strategy."

  He made his final point. "If special education is so special, why is the dropout rate for students with disabilities twice the overall rate? It's time for that to change. This gets to the heart of the President's vision of not leaving any child behind."

  Obviously, we've moved forward since November 28, 1975. However, the battle for children with disabilities isn't yet won. For more, see www.ed.gov or www.danieljvance.com