Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Ford Years: P.L. 94-142 - Ford's Doubts
On November 29, 1975, President Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) into law. The new law dramatically increased the federal commitment to categorical aid to special education. With a price tag of $3 billion to $4 billion over five years, it authorized funds to cover "excess" expenses associated with special education on an increasing basis, from 5-percent reimbursements in the first year to 10 percent reimbursements in the second year, 20 percent reimbursements in the third, 30 percent reimbursements in the fourth, and 40 percent reimbursements in the fifth and all subsequent years. In Ford's view, however, the law promised more than the federal government could deliver: "Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected [i.e., handicapped children and their parents] by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic."
In the end, Ford worried, P.L. 94-142 would simply become another "unfunded mandate" with legal obligations that outstripped its financial contributions. "It establishes complex requirements under which tax dollars would be used to support administrative paperwork and not educational programs," Ford said. "Unfortunately, these requirements will remain in effect even though the Congress appropriates far less than the amounts contemplated in [the law]." By the time P.L. 94-142 took effect in 1977, Ford warned, Congress would have to trim both its financial promises and its regulatory requirements. Otherwise, he said, "its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains." Indeed, the provisions of P.L. 94-142 struck a delicate balance between being voluntary (any state could choose not to receive federal funds) and mandatory (all states had to obey federal civil rights laws as interpreted by the courts). The key question for the future was whether taxpayers would be willing to pay for the programs necessary to meet civil rights expectations.