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Federal Laws Governing Education Rights and a Brief Description of PL 94.142

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (sometimes referred to using the acronyms EAHCA or EHA, or Public Law (PL) 94-142) was enacted by the United States Congress in 1975. This act required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide equal access to education and one free meal a day for children with physical and mental disabilities. Public schools were required to evaluate handicapped children and create an educational plan with parent input that would emulate as closely as possible the educational experience of non-disabled students.

The act also required that school districts provide administrative procedures so that parents of disabled children could dispute decisions made about their children's education. Once the administrative efforts were exhausted, parents were then authorized to seek judicial review of the administration's decision. Prior to the enactment of EHA, parents could take their disputes straight to the judiciary under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The mandatory system of dispute resolution created by EHA was an effort to alleviate the financial burden created by litigation pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act.

PL 94-142 also contains a provision that disabled students should be placed in the least restrictive environment-one that allows the maximum possible opportunity to interact with non-impaired students. Separate schooling may only occur when the nature or severity of the disability is such that instructional goals cannot be achieved in the regular classroom. Finally, the law contains a due process clause that guarantees an impartial hearing to resolve conflicts between the parents of disabled children to the school system.

The law was passed to meet four huge goals:

     1. To ensure that special education services are available to children who need them
     2. To guarantee that decisions about services to disabled students are fair and appropriate
     3. To establish specific management and auditing requirements for special education
     4. To provide federal funds to help the states educate disabled students

EHA was revised and renamed as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990 for improvement of special education and inclusive education.

Functional relationship between EHA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Equal Protection Clause [14th Amendment to the US Constitution]

The Supreme Court decided that EHA would be the exclusive remedy for disabled students asserting their right to equal access to public education in Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992 (1984). The petitioner, Tommy Smith, was an eight year old student who had cerebral palsy. The school district in Cumberland, Rhode Island originally agreed to subsidize Tommy's education by placing him in a program for special needs children at the Emma Pendleton Bradley Hospital. The school district later decided to remove Tommy from that program and send him to the Rhode Island Division of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, which was severely understaffed and under funded. This transfer would have constructively terminated Tommy's public education. Tommy's parents appealed the school district's decision through the administrative process created by EAHCA. Once the administrative process was exhausted, the Smiths sought judicial review pursuant to the EAHCA, § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The United States Supreme Court held that the administrative process created by EHA was the exclusive remedy for disabled students asserting their right to equal access to education. "Allowing a plaintiff to circumvent the EHA administrative remedies would be inconsistent with Congress' carefully tailored scheme...We conclude, therefore, that where the EHA is available to a disabled child asserting a right to a free appropriate public education, based either on the EHA or on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the EHA is the exclusive avenue through which the child and his parents or guardian can pursue their claim." The court based its decision on a contextual analysis of the applicable statutes. To permit a student to rely on § 504 or the § 1983 would be to effectively eliminate the EHA, because it would circumvent the EHA's requirement that petitioners first exhaust their administrative options before seeking judicial intervention.

 

 

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