Massachusetts takes pride in claiming the beginnings of public education in America with the founding of the Boston Latin School in 1635.
(Although the town of Rehoboth makes a strong case for having the first publicly funded public school in in the colonies, dating to 1645.)
Since then, the Commonwealth has proclaimed its leadership in teaching young people, whether with the harsh but instructive Calvanism of The New England Primer or the progressive philosophy of Horace Mann, which argued that every child was due a free and secular education.
In 1972, the state reached another landmark with the passage of a new special education law, known as Chapter 766, that was meant to ensure that every child received a “free and appropriate education” in the public schools, regardless of disabilities.
Before Chapter 766, children with special needs — whether intellectual, emotional or physical — were too often shunted off into what amounted to segregated programs, institutionalized or, worse yet, shut out of public education altogether.
The new law — and subsequent legislation — mandated that schools make every effort to mainstream these children whenever possible — keeping them in classrooms with their peers while they also received appropriate support and instruction when needed.
It was a sea change in the field of special education and served as the inspiration for federal legislation that requires schools to provide an education for these students in the “least restrictive environment.”
Unfortunately, as so often happens with some of the state’s best ideas, funding for the new law did not always keep pace with the expenses incurred by individual districts. But, over the years, the Commonwealth has enacted legislation to lift some of that burden off local school districts.
But it seems some schools still balk at the heavy commitment of time, staff and resources when it comes to the most severely disabled among the student population.
Take, for example the case of the Halajko family of Seekonk, the subject of our front page story in today’s Weekend edition.
As Sun Chronicle reporter Kayla Canne found out, it took six years before public school officials even approved a residential placement for their severely autistic son Shawnie, and then another five years to find the right fit, because the family didn’t have any say in the matter. Menwhile, Shawnie was in and out of the hospital and, not receiving the educational rights he’s entitled to under state and federal law.
Now state Rep. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, is pressing once again to get a vote on Beacon Hill for “Shawnie’s Bill,” which creates an emergency fund for timely placement and gives final authority to parents as to which facility their child will attend.
The bill has been filed in three different legislative sessions without coming up for a vote, but family and Howitt hope this year it will get the recognition it deserves.
We do, too. The proposed law is nothing more than an affirmation of the commitment we as a state made long ago — and which we have renewed often since then — that every child is entitled to learn.
Breaking a pledge that’s nearly 400 years old would be a harsh lesson indeed.