PRIVATE SCHOOLS have always been an expensive option for the normal child. For many other children, private schools have been an equally expensive and sometimes unattainable substitute for the public schools that could not or would not take them.
Parents of a child with any sort of handicap often have to face what seem to be insurmountable obstacles in getting any kind of education for their child. The child must be tested and diagnosed, and his level of performance ascertained. If he cannot be placed in a regular classroom situation, it must be determined whether he is "suitable" for the special classes given in the public schools. If no public class is found which meets the child's needs, the parents a faced with a difficult choice: either to brave the long waiting lists and phenomenal expenses of a private school or institution, or to give their child no education at all.
The Bartley-Daly Bill--"an act further regulating programs for children requiring special education"--should assure these special children the free education supposedly guaranteed to every child in the past, and at the same time radically change Massachusetts's philosophy of special education.
THE BILL sponsored by David Bartley, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Michael Daly, passed the the Massachusetts legislature last July and will become effective on Sept. 1, 1974.
"Our basic aim in this bill is to see that every child that needs a special education can get it, and that no child who does not need it is forced into a special class," Peggy Maxwell said. Maxwell and Connie Kaufmann, of Bartley's staff, were among the people who did the research for the bill.
One of the changes this bill will bring about is the elimination of the confusing and often counter-productive terminology used to classify handicapped children. The bill replaces the statutory labels (such as "mentally retarded," "deaf," "emotionally disturbed") with a more general designation, "school age children with special needs." This all encompassing category will include children who are mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, neurologically impaired, physically handicapped or who simply require some form of additional help to meet a normal school program.
FOR THE MENTALLY RETARDED especially, this change in terminology means a vast change in philosophy. "Under the old system, retarded children were classified as either trainable or educable according to their IQ's," Kaufmann said. "However, that left a vast body of children who were called either ineducable or untrainable, and for whom nothing was done."
The Coalition for Special Education estimated this summer that about 90,000 children in Massachusetts would benefit from this bill. Of these, only 55,000 are now receiving some form of special education. This means that because of the new classification system of the bill, some 45,000 children will be "drawn out" into special classes.
Part of the philosophy behind the elimination of more specific classification is the idea that there are very very few children who can in no way benefit from education. Defining a whole group of children as those who have "special needs" puts the burden on the school systems to discover what those special needs are and to provide free, public education in accordance with those needs.
Under the old system, classes were set up along clearly delineated lines. In Cambridge, for example, there are several levels of trainable and educable classes for the mentally retarded, classes for the emotionally disturbed, for developmentally immature children and for the physically or perceptually handicapped. The burden is placed on the child to fit into one of the established categories.
THE CRACKS BETWEEN THE CATEGORIES make a nice cop-out for school systems to let the kids fall through," Martha Ziegler, chairman of the Coalition for Special Education, and mother of an autistic son, said. "Now children, especially multiply handicapped children, will no longer have to have a neat label in order to get help," she said.
Another aspect of special education that will change is the perception of the role of the parent, both in choosing a class for his or her own child, and in setting up long range programs. One mother of an autistic girl described her frustration both at the classifications and at her own helplessness before a system that did not provide for a parent's needs or wishes. "They didn't want J----because she was autistic. They only wanted retarded children. I spent seven years fighting their (the school's) suggestions that I institutionalize her."
THE FIRST THING THIS BILL DOES is to make it necessary for the school to inform parents fully on any decisions regarding placement of their children in special classes. Like other provisions of this bill, this is one which may not impress people who have never been involved in trying to get a child in or out of a special class. The right of parents to decide in part what kind of an education their child receives should be obvious to most people. And yet this has not been obviously true in the past.
THERE ARE DOCUMENTED HORROR STORIES about parents trying to get their intelligent-but-deaf children out of classes for the retarded. In other states, researchers have claimed that whole districts were casually placing blacks and Puerto Ricans into classes for the retarded because of their imperfect skills in English. There are many cases on the other side too, where retarded or otherwise handicapped children were kept in a normal class, but demoted yearly.
The injustice of this is evident on the surface. Equally clear is the frustration of a parent who is trying to get an education for a child, but having to play a large institution's ball game. Past injustices can be seen very clearly by the way that the bill spells out step by step the mechanisms schools must now go through in notifying a parent of a placement decision.