About eleven years ago, shortly after our 4-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, my wife and I attended our first Committee on Special Education meeting. We sat on one side of a long conference room table. On the other side sat two school psychologists, a speech therapist, a regular ed teacher, a parent representative, two people I don't remember, and the director of special education, who, we felt certain, would be sympathetic to our request for additional services for our son since, as was pointed out to us, he himself had a child with special needs. How could he not look favorably upon our request?
Pretty soon, we had our answer. The week before the meeting, my wife had sent a Hallmark card to the director, telling him that we appreciated the district's efforts to assist our son, and expressing hope that we could all work together. Five minutes into the meeting, after we told the assembled group about the 25 hours a week of applied behavior analysis therapy that we believe our son should receive, we sat horrified as the director pulled my wife's card out of his portfolio and began reading from it aloud, accusing us of wanting to spend unnecessary district funds only days after praising their efforts.
That meeting, the memory of which bubbled up again as my wife and I watched the Republican National Convention on TV, marked a sea change in our lives and in the life of our son. After litigating twice with our school district before ultimately moving to a different part of our state to get away from them, relocating my entire business, dozens of training seminars, a positive experience with our new district, and a decade of spending more than $50,000 a year of our own money on afternoon, evening and weekend therapists, I am happy to report that earlier this month, our son started high school. He may never be fully independent, and, although we are more fortunate than most, I worry every day about the financial responsibilities that face our family in the years to come, but getting to this point has been the proudest moment of our lives.
My wife and I watched with rapt attention as members of the Palin family passed around Sarah Palin's 4-month-old child with Down Syndrome during the Republican National Convention, and read with interest Cindy McCain's story (since discredited) of how Mother Theresa herself had asked her to bring back with her the daughter with a cleft palate she and her husband ultimately adopted. We knew it was only a matter of time before the other shoe would drop. Sure enough, during her acceptance speech at the convention itself, Palin "unblinkingly" moved from image of disabled child to disability advocate:
And children with special needs inspire a special love.
To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters.
I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.
Since her acceptance speech, Palin has consistently repeated and even embellished this theme (earlier this week, she extended the concept to include a forgotten nephew with autism who has suddenly surfaced ). McCain himself rarely misses opportunities to mention his wife's experience as a special education teacher . Shortly after the convention, statements by parents of children with disabilities praising Palin begin surfacing suggesting Palin's special needs campaign was working, especially after early reports that Palin had cut special education in cash-rich Alaska proved to be incorrect . When one considers that 6.8 million children currently receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act , and the degree to which the parents of this population often feels understandably that it is not being listened to, the possible effects of such a growing perception cannot overemphasized.
The reality, of course, is a different matter altogether. Read between the lines, suggest that dealing with this serious national problem may involve money, and the true Palin-McCain philosophy on special education services begins to shine clearly through:
McCain's advisor, former Arizona schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, said money is not the answer. She said McCain, a Republican, would hold the line on federal spending on education. "Senator McCain is very mindful that the nation is in an economic crisis right now," said Keegan. She noted the federal government has increased spending nearly 50 percent over pre-NCLB levels.
Keegan said McCain, whose wife Cindy was a special education teacher, is interested in finding ways to increase funding for the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, Keegan said that more than 50 percent of students who are classified would not need services if their schools did a better job of teaching reading - an assertion that is sure to be challenged by experts in the field. NY State School Boards Association Website, 8/18/08.
The modus operandi of the McCain-Palin special education message to the electorate is in reality no different than their MO on taxes, the role of women, education, our military, stem-cell research and the economy: say and repeat, and use powerful symbols to show that you care, to obfuscate policies that show, unambiguously, that you do not.
There are few causes that cry out for government help more loudly than special education. It is an issue that unambiguously involves people who often cannot help themselves or speak for themselves, but in whom an early and effective investment of time and resources will increase their effectiveness as valued citizens and reduce the demands that their care will ultimately place upon government. They and their parents must seek recourse under a law--the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act--that has never been fully funded by Congress in the decades that it has been on the books , and which the current conservative Supreme Court and Republican-controlled Congress have been chipping away at year after year, imposing additional procedural and financial barriers to relief upon parents often already stressed to the limit by their kids' disabilities and the financial burdens of providing for their care.
What will ultimately make a difference to the millions of American parents of children with special needs is to have a president and vice-president who are willing to make the difficult decisions and put our money where their mouths are when difficult decisions have to be made among competing national priorities like special education and healthcare on the one hand, and maybe starting one war instead of three on the other hand. Jaded as years of fighting for our children may make us, our heartstrings still reverberate when unscrupulous candidates like McCain and Palin suddenly start humming our children’s song, and we aren’t paying close enough attention. While Obama's strong support of children with disabilities is beyond reproach , we need to do a better job of getting this message out there, and of reminding this large and passionate constituency who really has their interest at heart.
Earlier this evening, John McCain implied that Barack Obama went to the Barbra Streisand fundraiser because her prefers hanging out with movie stars in Hollywood instead of working people in Ohio. Interestingly enough, almost six months to the day before making this remark, Senator McCain, having already clinched the Republican nomination for president, was himself absent from an important event so that he could attend his own $1000 per person fundraising luncheon in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania . The event he missed? He was the lone Republican that day to miss the vote on the Sanders Amendment to the Congressional Budget Resolution for 2009, defeated largely on party lines, which would have
put children ahead of millionaires and billionaires by restoring the pre-2001 top income tax rate for people earning over $1 million, and use this revenue to invest in LIHEAP; IDEA; Head Start; Child Care; nutrition; and school construction
Operating in a vacuum, it is easy for a candidate to be all things to all people. The question is, in the real world, where the candidate has to choose among priorities, how will they choose?