Dennis Haggerty, father of Pa. Right to Education law, dies at 85

Memorial services for Dennis Haggerty, the special-needs education advocate and lawyer who championed Pennsylvania’s Right to Education law, began Monday. He died last week at the age of 85.

Frustrated by the dearth of educational opportunities for his intellectually disabled son in the 1960s, Haggerty fought alongside the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens, now called Arc of Pennsylvania or PARC, to overturn a state law specifically barring children “who have not attained a mental age of five years” from enrolling in the first grade.

Haggerty’s efforts paid off in 1971, when his clandestine photographs documenting grim conditions for disabled residents at the Pennhurst State School and Hospital inspired PARC to sue the state.

After PARC and its allies won their class-action suit, Pennsylvania opened free public education to all mentally handicapped citizens up to the age of 21.

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Four decades later, special education in Pennsylvania is still being debated as the state scrambles to fund schools in Philadelphia and beyond.

Earlier this month, a state commission charged with rethinking Pennsylvania’s special education funding model — now based on the funding budget for each school district rather than the cost of educating a child — met for the first time.

PARC v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Haggerty first became suspicious of Pennhurst, he later told oral historian Fred Pelka, after briefly enrolling his 8-year-old son there.

Haggerty’s instincts were right. When resident John Stark Williams died at Pennhurst in 1969, Haggerty recounted to Pelka, his parents didn’t find out until his mother visited a year later.

She was informed he had died after a fall in the shower, but an autopsy later revealed fire damage to his body.

With a lead case in hand, Haggerty now needed to convince PARC to sue the state for poor conditions at Pennhurst. At the PARC Pittsburgh convention later that year, Haggerty came armed with photographic proof of crowded and unsanitary accommodations at Pennhurst.

Eleanor Elkin, Haggerty’s friend and fellow volunteer at PARC, says Haggerty later told her how he managed to get into Pennhurst in the first place.

“He said, ‘Well, I put on a white coat, like a lab coat, and I had a little bag. And I said, ‘I am Dr. Haggerty,'” Elkin recalled. “And they let him in.”

The statement wasn’t a lie either, Elkin was quick to note. Haggerty’s doctor of jurisprudence earned him the title even if he wasn’t a medical doctor.

The ruling in PARC v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania became an important precedent for decades of national legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Following a 14-year court battle, Pennhurst finally closed in 1987.

After Pennhurst, a long road to civil rights

In the early days after the right to education decree was established, the going wasn’t always easy for handicapped children entering school for the first time.

Audrey Coccia, co-founder of the Philadelphia-based disability advocacy group Vision for Equality, says most public schools didn’t have the means or experience to teach mentally disabled children such as her daughter Gina, now 48.

“It took a number of years and some additional legislation before people clearly had an idea how to support people like this in school,” she said. “You know, the civil rights movement is a long, long road. It’s not something that just happens because a law goes in place.”

With school districts across the state today strapped for cash, special education programs in Pennsylvania still have to jostle for adequate resources.

For the past six years, special education funding has held steady at $1 billion, even though the number of special needs students in some districts has grown.

The new commission that met earlier in July aims to revise the logic of funding so that special education dollars reflects the number of special-needs students in each district, but the new formula will have no immediate effects.

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