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Breakthrough: Federal Special Education Legislation 1965-1981

reviewed by Rhonda S Black - September 26, 2015

coverTitle: Breakthrough: Federal Special Education Legislation 1965-1981
Author(s): Edwin W Martin
Publisher: Bardolf & Company,
ISBN: 1938842057, Pages: 246, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

Dr. Edwin W. Martins Breakthrough: Federal Special Education Legislation 1965-1981 provides an insiders view of the processes leading up to the passage of PL 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA, 1975). This legislation was later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in subsequent revisions. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the passage of this momentous act, the beginning of federally-mandated special education, this book would be of special interest to educational historians as well as those interested in politics, education policy studies, and social justice in public institutions.


In Breakthrough, Martin chronicles the behind-the-scenes work that led to the birth of this important act, detailing the inner workings of Washington including political protocol that is foreign to many outsiders and fundamental to the successful passage of this act. Martins first-person narrative introduces readers to the major players and politics involved in early Special Education policy.


In the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations ushered in a new era of public policy focusing on equal opportunity. In his short time in office, President John F. Kennedys personal interest in intellectual disabilities ushered in a bold new approach to research, treatment, and community-based care. In 1963, he stated, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities (J.F.K. Presidential Library and Museum, n.d.). While President Lyndon B. Johnson shifted the national focus to economically disadvantaged children and families, advocacy for individuals with disabilities had been set into motion. Martin was an inside player in bringing about changes in national public policy, working from 1965 to 1981 for the Congress and for the Executive Branch, and directing the Federal Special Education Program under four Presidents, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter (p. 13).

This book chronicles Martins experiences and is divided into four parts: (a) Early Beginnings; (b) The Bureau of Education for the Handicapped and Federal Policy in Special Education 1967-1975; (c) Launching a Campaign to Educate Every Handicapped Child by 1980; and (d) Congressional Action and Implementation.


In 1966, Martin was appointed director of a House of Representatives subcommittee studying Special Education needs in the United States. This subcommittee was created after the passage of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, 1965) and the Higher Education Act (1965). This resulted in the Johnson Administration swiftly acting on legislation related to the War on Poverty. In contrast to the optimism felt by parents and professionals in the disability field during the Kennedy Administration, disappointment prevailed during the Johnson Administration. The only ray of hope was that some funding provisions for the education of the children with disabilities became a section of ESEA, Title VI, in 1966.


Martin was convinced that without a strong visible organization like a bureau, special education would get lost in the shuffle. His goal subsequently became establishing the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (BEH). Regional Resource Centers were created and the Handicapped Childrens Early Education Assistance Act (1968) was passed. In addition, model programs, collaboration with Head Start, teacher preparation programs, and technical assistance programs were also created to serve young children with disabilities. The success of these ventures laid a solid foundation for later passage of the Education for All Handicapped Childrens Act of 1975. By 1972, parent advocacy groups were becoming larger and more vocal. The media was also involved in disability advocacy with news reports and childrens programming such as Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood that showed children with disabilities interacting with their non-disabled peers.  


By 1970, the BEH had funded several successful model demonstration programs in various states. Parent advocates and a few influential professionals in the special education field felt that federal funds could have a multiplier effect if expanded. At this time, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) partnered with key players in Washington to craft state and federal legislation that would strengthen and expand the field of Special Education. The Education Commission of the States working with the CEC launched a national conference, followed by a series of regional conferences to promote the Education for All movement with a goal of Education for All Handicapped Children by 1980. Delegates from each state were in attendance resulting in several legislators crafting resolutions supporting the goal. In the early 1970s, several major court cases involving separate education for children with disabilities were decided in favor of local neighborhood schools providing such services.

Martin writes that following two landmark decisions in the 1970s, including PARC v. Pennsylvania (1972) and Mills v. Board of Education of the District Columbia (1972), the dam broke and scores of cases were filed across the nation (p. 135). These decisions added fuel to the fire igniting support for the movement called Right to Education for Every Handicapped Child by 1980. From 1972 to 1975, details of what would become PL 94-142 were worked, reworked, negotiated, and fought over. This included financial, and local versus state versus federal responsibilities. While the deliberations took years, the key concept of the proposed legislation was that schools could no longer exclude children with disabilities. The Right to Education and zero reject principles became the basis of the law arguing that denial of educational opportunity violated the equal protection provisions of the Bill of Rights.


Providing parents with a role in determining an Individual Education Program for their child was the next provision of the newly crafted legislation. This was later followed by the proviso that children with disabilities be educated, where appropriate, with their nondisabled peers in what was to become known as the Least Restrictive Environment. This ultimate result was that the final versions of the bills that became PL 94-142 blended many concepts financial, administrative, educational and civil rights (p. 160).   


To pass the bill that would become PL 94-142, consensus was needed. School board members, school administrators, and some elected officials were wary. Martin explains that regulations, written by the Executive Branch following the enactment of a law, fill in gaps and add stipulations for compliance. These regulations have the force of law, and make the legislation more specific. He wanted as many people, as possible, involved with writing the regulations because he did not want the law to be something handed down from on high by faceless bureaucrats (p. 182). Martin concludes with a discussion of implementing PL 94-142 from 1976-1980 under the Carter Administration. Martin gave up his position with the election of Ronald Reagan, who not only wanted to repeal PL 94-142 and the Civil Rights sections of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), but also wanted to abolish the Department of Education altogether (p. 205). Martin could not stand to see the undoing of what he and his colleagues had spent fourteen years putting together, and returned to higher education teaching at Harvard University. He continued working in the field of disability until his retirement in 1994.  



This book reads like a Whos Who of Special Education policy makers. It is complete with who formed alliances with whom, as well as Washington protocols, and the kind of work performed by Washington staffers. By describing various events and the roles people played over the years, Martin emphasizes the importance of connection and creating alliances. As he tells the story of Washingtons inner machinations the reader sees how many important decisions are made in hallways, private meetings, and at cocktail and dinner parties in our countrys capital. Securing rights for children and youth with disabilities was about connecting and negotiating, as well as giving in a little, but not too much. For Martin, it was about keeping focus on the dream. Martin emphasizes respect throughout the book as he appears to be the workhorse in the background, constantly plodding away, but never taking center-stage. He left that to the elected public officials. Edwin Martin made other people look good while changing the face of education in the United States. Because of his work, students with disabilities today have a chance of succeeding and contributing to our communities in meaningful ways, enriching all of our lives.


Education for All Handicapped Childrens Act of 1975, Public Law 94-142, 89 U.S. Statutes at Large 773 (1975).

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Public Law 89-10, 79 U.S. Statutes at Large 27 (1965).

Handicapped Childrens Early Education Assistance Act of 1968, Public Law 90-538,  82 U.S. Statutes at Large 901 (1968).

Higher Education Act of 1965, Public Law 89-239,  79 U.S. Statutes at Large 1219 (1965).

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (n.d.). JFK and people with intellectual disabilities. Retrieved from


Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, 348 F. Supp. 866 (D.D.C. 1972).

Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 334 F. Supp 1257 (E.D. Pa. 1971), 343 F. Supp. 279 (E.D. Pa. 1972).

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Public Law 93-112,  87 U.S. Statutes at Large 355 (1973).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 26, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18131, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 11:42:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Rhonda Black
    University of Hawaii
    E-mail Author
    RHONDA S. BLACK, EdD, is a Professor of Special Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She teaches classes in research design, skills for social competence, transition from school to adult services for individuals with disabilities, and media portrayal of disability. Much of her professional work has focused on cultural considerations in special education, community and social inclusion of individuals with disabilities, and healthy sexuality and abuse prevention for young adults and adults with disabilities. She began working with young adults with disabilities 30 years ago, and since that time has worked with students, teachers, and program personnel at all levels from pre-school to adult. She works with many schools in Hawaii in the preparation of pre-service teachers and continuing education of in-service educators.
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