By: Josh Gotwalt, originally posted at the Center for Faith and Work.

In 1972, an intrepid reporter named Geraldo Rivera (you really get the mustache when you see a 1972 picture of him), then a reporter for WABC-TV, conducted a series of investigations at Willowbrook State School, an institution for children with intellectual disabilities on Staten Island. The children he found there were described as “living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.” The expose’ won a Peabody Award for Rivera and more importantly the publicity generated by the case led to the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  This legislation sought to redress the fact that many state laws explicitly excluded children who were blind or deaf, and children labeled “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally retarded” from attending public schools. Willowbrook was not an anomaly.  Previous to IDEA many of these children lived at state institutions or were “warehoused” in segregated facilities and received little or no effective instruction.  Under IDEA, children with disabilities are guaranteed a “free and appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment” that is appropriate to the individual student’s needs. Legislative attempts to improve special education have continued since the 1970s.  In 2004 the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) placed an emphasis on special education and created financial incentives to states that improve their special education services.  As a condition of these incentives, NCLB required that states create assessment levels for special education students aligned to standards for students enrolled in general education.

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