Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act Primary Source eText

Primary Source

A teacher supervises her class of young children with special needs in Letchworth Village, New York. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. A teacher supervises her class of young children with special needs in Letchworth Village, New York. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


Date: September 6, 1958

Source: Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act. U.S. Statutes at Large 72 (1958), 1777.


The development of common schools in the early nineteenth century was based on the ideal of providing publicly funded education for all children. Certain groups of children, including those with disabilities, were routinely excluded, and the ideal of "schools for all" did not become a reality until the 1970s.

In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, students with disabilities had limited choices. Often denied education in the public schools, most had a choice between staying at home or institutionalization. Some students had access to boarding schools for specific disabilities, such as for the blind or deaf. These specific schools were supported by private donations or, sometimes, by state or federal funds. By 1900, a few states had public school programs serving students with certain types of disabilities. And even though compulsory education laws were in place nationwide near the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, public schools were still permitted to refuse students who were deemed "uneducable."

Little progress was made in disability education until the 1950s. A catalyst for change in the education of students with disabilities was the U.S. Supreme Court decision

in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. This ruling, although applying specifically to the rights of minority children, established equal education as a civil right for all children. In addition, the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958 paved the way for expanded federal involvement in public education. After the passage of the NDEA, the question was no longer whether the federal government would be involved, but what direction that involvement would take.

President Dwight Eisenhower (served 1953–1961) signed the Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act just days after signing the NDEA. The act, while not providing funding directly to schools for the education of students with disabilities, did assist colleges and universities in training teachers for students with mental retardation. Initially limited to mental retardation, the act was broadened in 1963 to include education for teachers specializing in other disabilities as well as for research.


The Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act marked the beginning of a greatly expanded federal role in education for students with disabilities. Advocacy groups formed by parents of children with disabilities were instrumental in the passage of laws from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s that gave children with disabilities "appropriate, equal educational opportunity." Important victories in the 1960s for the educational rights of children with disabilities include the passage in 1965 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided federal funds for the education of students with disabilities in state-operated schools. The Handicapped Children's Early Education Assistance Act was passed in 1968 to fund educational programs for children with disabilities from birth to age six.

Two federal court decisions, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1971) and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972), ruled that under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment schools must provide equal access to education for students with disabilities. These cases set the stage for landmark federal legislation in 1975.

With the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act in 1975, students with disabilities were finally guaranteed a free appropriate education. In addition, the law established the rights of students to an education in the least restrictive environment, allowing many more students to receive special education services within the regular classroom. The act was amended a number of times, and the name was changed in 1990 to the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, reinforced the rights of people with disabilities to equal opportunity and access in schools.

Primary Source: Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act

SYNOPSIS: The text of the Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act states the purpose of the act—to assist colleges and universities in training teachers of students with mental retardation—and outlines the procedures for the distribution of funds. The key terms, "nonprofit institution" and "state educational agency," are defined for the purposes of the act.

An Act

To encourage expansion of teaching in the education of mentally retarded children through grants to institutions of higher learning and to State educational agencies.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Commissioner of Education is authorized to make grants to public or other nonprofit institutions of higher learning to assist them in providing training of professional personnel to conduct training of teachers in fields related to education of mentally retarded children. Such grants may be used by such institutions to assist in covering the cost of courses of training or study for such personnel and for establishing and maintaining fellowships, with such stipends as may be determined by the Commissioner of Education.

Sec. 2. The Commissioner of Education is also authorized to make grants to State educational agencies to assist them in establishing and maintaining, directly or through grants to public or other nonprofit institutions of higher learning, fellowships or trainee-ships for training personnel engaged or preparing to engage in employment as teachers of mentally retarded children or as supervisors of such teachers.

Sec. 3. Payments of grants pursuant to this Act may be made by the Commissioner of Education from time to time, in advance or by way of reimbursement, on such conditions as the Commissioner may determine. Such payments shall not exceed $1,000,000 for any one fiscal year.

Sec. 4. Each State educational agency and each public or other nonprofit institution of higher education which receives a grant under this Act during a fiscal year shall after the end of such fiscal year submit a report to the Commissioner of Education. Such report shall contain a detailed financial statement showing the purposes for which the funds granted under this Act were expended.

Sec. 5. For purposes of this Act—

  1. The term "nonprofit institution" means an institution owned and operated by one or more corporations or associations no part of the net earnings of which inures, or may lawfully inure, to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.
  2. The term "State educational agency" means the State board of education or other agency or officer primarily responsible for State supervision of public elementary and secondary schools in the State.

Sec. 6. The Commissioner of Education is authorized to delegate any of his functions under this Act, except the making of regulations, to any officer or employee of the Office of Education.

Sec. 7. This Act shall continue in effect until a date ten years after the date of the enactment of this Act.

Approved September 6, 1958.

Further Resources


Alexander, Kern, and M. David Alexander. American Public School Law, 5th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.

Ballard, Joseph, Bruce A. Ramirez, and Frederick J. Weintraub, eds. Special Education in America: Its Legal and Governmental Foundations. Reston, Va.: Council for Exceptional Children, 1982.

Longmore, Paul K., and Lauri Umansky. The New Disability History: American Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Safford, Philip L., and Elizabeth J. Safford. A History of Childhood and Disability. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996.

Winzer, M. A. The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993.


Americans with Disabilities Act Home Page, U.S. Department of Justice. Available online at (accessed May 1, 2003).

"The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services." U.S. Department of Education. Available online at; website home page: (accessed May 1, 2003).

Pacer Center. Available online at (accessed May 1, 2003).