PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, DC

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Question:  True or False:  Prior to 1971 when the PARC and Mills cases were filed, children with disabilities were routinely denied a public education.

Answer: True.

Photo of young boy in a wheelchair using the lift on a school bus.
Education for all

In 1971, the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a state law that allowed public schools to deny education to certain children, namely those who had not “attained a mental age of 5 years”. This law had been consistently used by the state to deny education to students considered too burdensome to integrate into school and classroom environments. The case was brought and settled before the District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

PARC was the first significant challenge to laws around the country prohibiting or excluding students with mental disabilities from attending school alongside other children or even in special programs tailored to their needs. Before this case, many states had similar forms of legislation in place to prevent children with mental disabilities from receiving a free public education.

The case alleged due process violations by the state. The plaintiffs argued that all children can benefit from a program of education and training, and that the absence of this education leads to negative consequences for the development of children. With education however, these children could eventually attain some level of self-care, and the earlier such education is given, the more they would be able to benefit from it. The state had actively denied children their rights to due process and education through the education laws.

Based on the strength of evidence, the sides came to a settlement in early 1972, and U.S. District Court Judge Masterson gave a consent decree deeming the former laws unconstitutional and tasking the State with providing a free public education to all children between the ages of six and twenty-one years. Additionally, the State was asked to provide sufficient education and training for all “exceptional” children, to the level of those given to their peers. In line with these new requirements, the Commonwealth could no longer deny any child with disabilities access to any free public program of education and training.

While the case never rose above the district level, it did spark other parties to take action in their respective areas. Later in 1972, months after the PARC decision, a new case was brought before the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia by the family and friends of Peter Mills and seven other children against the District of Columbia. Peter was a 12-year old student with behavioral issues. The school district excluded Peter from school asserting that his behavioral issues would be too expensive to address.

The district claimed that providing education for children like Peter would cost millions of dollars, and therefore claimed educating Peter would be an undue burden.

In the decision, District Court Judge Waddy stated that no child eligible for a publicly supported education could be denied such education without an equal alternative tailored to the child’s needs. In addition, the district’s practice of excluding of children with disabilities from education was deemed unlawful.

The judge ordered the district to take the following actions:

– To provide accessible, free, and suitable education for all children of school age regardless of disability or impairment.

– To not suspend a child for more than 2 days without a hearing.

– To provide all parties in the suit with publicly supported educational programs tailored to their needs.

Following the decisions in these two cases, dozens of similar lawsuits followed, challenging unfair statutes or practices that had prevented children with disabilities from receiving a public education. This trend eventually led to important federal policies such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1974, which finally made free public education a reality for many children who had previously been denied.

Primary Sources

Mills v. Board of Education, DC. 348 F.Supp. 866 (D. DC 1972).

PARC v. Commonwealth. 343 F. Supp. 279; 1972 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13874.

“Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.  Undated.

Secondary Sources

Yell, M. L., D. Rogers, and E. L. Rogers. “The Legal History of Special Education: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been!” Remedial and Special Education 19.4 (1998): 219-28. Print.

Jon, Romberg. “The Means Justify the Ends: Structural Due Process in Special Education Law.” Harvard Journal On Legislation 48 (2011): 415-66. Print.

“Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. Comonwealth of Pennsylvania (1972).” Equity in Education Legal Database. v0.1.  Undated.

4 responses to “PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, DC

    1. From the article: To not suspend a child for more than 2 days without a hearing.
      That’s each individual suspension. The ten days you talk about must be the total amount of days suspended before a hearing is triggered, and I guess it’s to prevent schools from putting kids on two-day suspension after two-day suspension until they’ve spent the entire academic year at home. Basically, somebody’s closed a loophole, I reckon.

  1. I am working on a school assignment on the “Special Education Process” and I found this information very useful in initiating my presentation with describing/discussing these vital court cases that led to educational rights of students with disabilities.
    Thank You!

    1. Hi Edith:

      Thanks for visiting Galaxy. We’re pleased you found this post useful. Good luck with your presentation. If you have a written version of it when you are through, we’d like to see it and possibly share it with others on Galaxy. If you decide to share, email it my way – [email protected] – and we’ll take a look at it. Put Galaxy in the subject line so it is sure to grab my attention.

      Thanks again.

      Mark Stroh

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