The situation confronting 6-year-old Jimmy Peters and his parents, his schoolmates and their parents, and his teachers and other school personnel in Huntington Beach, is symptomatic of a much larger problem facing education in California today.
Throughout the history of special education, parent and professional advocacy groups have lobbied state legislatures and Congress to obtain school programs for disabled children. When political lobbying failed, these groups, especially the parents, turned to the courts for redress to obtain the same educational opportunities for their disabled children as those offered non-disabled children.
Political activity by parent organizations resulted in special classes in public schools for children representing a wide variety of physical, neurological, intellectual or psychological disabilities. Seldom did the leadership to establish these special education programs come from local school board members or school administrators.
Perhaps in response to court activity and political activity on the part of advocacy groups, and after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1973, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-124), recently changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Its intent was to guarantee a "public-supported" education for every school-age child in the "least restrictive environment" regardless of the nature or degree of their disability.
While some parents and special educators were thrilled with the passage and implementation of this legislation, a controversy developed concerning the actual setting in which these children may be served; what should be the "least restrictive environment"? Special-education schools for the severely handicapped and special day classes on regular school campuses for the mildly to moderately disabled became the vogue.
Some professional educators, allied with advocacy groups, the California Department of Education and the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation, have created the Regular Education Initiative which flowed from the idea in the mid-1970s that the majority of disabled children should be educated in the "mainstream," meaning the regular class. Today the emphasis is on "full inclusion," interpreted to mean that all children with disabilities belong in the regular class with their chronological age peers.
Our democratic system assures that equal educational opportunity be afforded students of all racial or cultural heritage, socioeconomic levels, with or without disabilities, if they are to be expected to fulfill their potential as they approach adulthood.
However, until the citizens and legislators become willing to establish a tax program to produce sufficient revenue to support education, class size will continue to be too high to permit regular education teachers, even with aides, to provide the appropriate educational program for mildly to severely disabled children without interfering with the educational process of the other children in the class.
It is essential that class size be reduced considerably and teachers be provided comprehensive training concerning the actual teaching of children with disabilities to enable them to serve all of the children in their classes if "full inclusion" is to be successful.
Judges, who, in their wisdom, interpret the law cannot solve the problem. Taxpayers and legislators must. Otherwise the future Jimmy Peterses and their regular class peers will continue to suffer.