Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Nixon Years: Mainstreaming Special Education
The principle of unfunded legal mandates applied especially to special education for the disabled, where rapidly increasing costs derived largely from federal court orders. Indeed, two important decisions in 1971 and 1972 led directly to skyrocketing costs for local schools that enrolled mentally, physically, or emotionally handicapped children. In the first case, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Pennsylvania, a federal court in Philadelphia ruled that public schools must place disabled pupils in the least restrictive classroom environment. Basing its ruling on the Fourteenth Amendment and the idea that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, the court ordered the public schools in Philadelphia "to place each mentally retarded child in a free, public program of education and training appropriate to the child's capacity, within the context of a presumption that, among the alternative programs of education and training required by [state law] to be available, placement in a regular public school class is preferable to placement in a special public school class, and placement in a special public school class is preferable to placement in any other type of program of education and training."
The case of PARC v. Pennsylvania established two important precedents. First, it required schools to mainstream mentally retarded students into regular classes whenever possible. Second, it tied this requirement to the Fourteenth Amendment, suggesting that mainstreaming on both the school and the classroom level was legally essential to "equal educational opportunities." PARC v. Pennsylvania did not, however, deliver the last word on equal educational opportunities for disabled students. In 1972, in the case of Mills v. Board of Education, a federal court in Washington, D.C., held that, while mainstreaming might be preferable for the disabled, isolation would continue to be permissible so long as it promised improved educational benefits-as measured by educational results. The most important question in Mills v. Board of Education, however, was not the question of mainstreaming but, rather, the question of how to pay for all the specialized services that disabled children required. Since Washington, D.C. was not a state, the city's schools had to rely entirely on Congress for their financial welfare.