IDEA45: Our Continued Passion

Michael Norman
IDEA 45th Anniversary logo

IDEA Deserves our Continued Passion, Advocacy, and Support

By Michael Norman


When I began an internship at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) in 1976, I knew little about special education and even less about state educational agencies (SEAs). I was a thirty-year-old doctoral student and former middle school principal. I had no idea that internship would change the entire trajectory of my professional life.

I walked into a flurry of activity centered on the recent passage of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. NASDSE had a Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (BEH)-funded training grant to support SEAs in meeting their responsibilities under the legislation, which I quickly learned were considerable. The excitement of the NASDSE staff was infectious. My previous work in racial integration in public schools led me to see P.L. 94-142 as a wonderfully articulated outcome and expansion of Brown v Board of Education. I also considered the legislation as an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) because I had worked with Title I, which was designed to address the inequity of educational opportunity for underprivileged children. It was the 1966 amendments to ESEA that created the BEH and the first state grant programs focused on students with disabilities.

I immediately realized how little I knew about the access to education for children and youth with disabilities. I could not recall any discussion of students with disabilities in my undergraduate or graduate training programs. Schools in which I worked had “a special education class” with very little interaction between those teachers and students with others in the school. Even as a school administrator, the special education teacher in my building was hired and supervised by the central office.

Since becoming part of the special education community in 1976, I’ve worked in several capacities to support the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I believe IDEA continues to need and deserve our passion, advocacy, and support today.

P.L. 94-142’s passage in November 1975 was truly a cause for celebration. It was the result of coordinated and unified efforts of parents and advocacy organizations never seen before; a series of court decisions and supporting legislation (PARC, Mills, Section 504); sustained and effective strategic actions by BEH; and unbelievable Congressional investigation, testimony, and commitment. Its basis was the eloquent concept of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which remains the promise of IDEA today.

I have always been somewhat in awe of the interrelationships originally embodied in P.L. 94-142 and now in IDEA, all focused on the Congressionally established purposes of IDEA: availability of FAPE; assurance of rights and protections to children and youth with disabilities and their parents; assistance to SEAs and local educational agencies (LEAs) in meeting their responsibilities under IDEA; and assessment of the effectiveness of the legislation. We must continue to uphold and preserve the critical nature of these interrelationships.

While FAPE is the promise of IDEA for all children with disabilities, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) requirement is IDEA’s heart. I came to realize this as an Associate Director of NASDSE (1977–1984) spending time training SEA and LEA staff along with hearing officers across the country. I believe the IEP requirement is what made P.L. 94-142 significant and unique in federal legislation — it put students and parents at the forefront in defining FAPE for an individual child. As the key source of information shared between the school and parents or guardians, the IEP is the basis for agreement or negotiation on assessment, participation in the least restrictive environment, academic, social and emotional goals and objectives, and evaluation of student progress. After forty-five years the IEP remains the key vehicle through which the promises of IDEA are realized.

IDEA remains vital today, in large part, because of the willingness and ability of the special education community to respond to new and emerging issues and concerns. In the mid-1980s, the legislation was expanded to include infants and toddlers and transition planning and services to students approaching school exit. Issues once considered to be only “special education problems” are now often embraced by and addressed through school wide strategies. Furthermore, we recognize our continuing responsibility to deal with the causes of overrepresentation of minority students in special education.

For IDEA to fulfill the promise of FAPE for current and future generations of children and youth with disabilities and their parents, I believe it essential that we continue to champion the community that has supported the initiation, implementation, and success of IDEA. This broad and diverse community includes: the parents who have worked tirelessly first for their own children and then supported other parents and families as they interacted with the system; the SEA and LEA personnel, teachers, and providers who implement IDEA on a daily basis and the folks who prepared those professionals; the researchers who kept us honest and showed us new directions; the national, state, and local organization staff who provide support to their respective constituents; and OSEP personnel who monitor the implementation of IDEA and administer the discretionary programs that allow us to meet new challenges in fulfilling its promise.


Mike Norman a Senior Researcher at the StudyGroup and lifetime special education advocate.


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