In the 1963 movie A Child is Waiting, characters played by Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland argue about whether “mentally retarded” children are capable of learning and should be educated. The movie ends with a father reluctantly visiting a facility – a state mental institution – and being stunned to see his developmentally disabled son recite poetry from memory. Strikingly, there is no discussion in the movie of providing these students with access to the public schools.
It would take more than a decade before Congress would pursue that idea in a meaningful way. It passed a law called the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990. Guided by this law and decisions by courts about what it means, schools have made great strides in educating students with physical limitations, developmental disabilities, emotional issues and learning disorders.
While it was a great achievement, IDEA also placed a tremendous responsibility and cost on public schools. Our schools and our legal system have far to go to ensure limited tax dollars go to education and not litigation.