Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Palin and Special Education: A Closer Look

Jennifer Laviano is a special needs attorney in Sherman, CT. Her guest opinion piece appears here with her permission. - Miss Dennis

Dear Clients, Friends, and Colleagues,

As we near the Presidential election in just two weeks, I have been asked by many of you to comment on my thoughts on Gov. Palin and what she can and will do for special education students. As an attorney whose practice focuses exclusively on the representation of children with disabilities, I always investigate candidates' positions and records on this very critical moral and financial issue. One of my clients recently suggested that I share with others what I have learned, and so here it is.

When Gov. Palin first came to my attention, I was, as I am sure all of you who care about this issue, intrigued to have someone on the national platform who talks about children with special needs. Since hearing her say this repeatedly in speeches, I have been waiting, and waiting, to hear some specifics on special education reform. Most of all, I want to know what her stance is on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal statute that governs special education. The IDEA is up for reauthorization by Congress in 2010, and it is crucial that it reflect the policies and funding structure necessary to protect and appropriately educate our children with disabilities. I needed to know what Gov. Palin thinks about the future of special education legislation in this country.

I know where the other three on the tickets stand. Senators Obama and Biden have issued position statements on the IDEA to various parent groups, strongly supporting full funding for the IDEA and the rights of children with disabilities and their parents. The Obama-Biden website has a direct link to the ticket's position on disabilities. Senator McCain's website does not have such a link and neither he nor Palin have provided those positions on the IDEA to parent advocacy groups. Senator McCain does have a supportive position on the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) which has been published. I was, however, extremely disappointed in his discussion on the Senate floor regarding the Reauthorization of the IDEA 2004, in which he expressed his concerns that parents of children with disabilities who have to sue to secure appropriate services for their children under the Statute and win against districts shouldn't have their attorneys' fees covered. This is not just a matter of self-interest for me; it is the difference between families, especially poor families, being able to vindicate their civil rights or not. But I knew those things, I did not know where Palin stood, and I wanted to find out.

Having waited for some specifics from her on just how she is going to be an advocate for children with special needs in the White House, I finally got close. In her recent interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, she was asked what her position is. While never mentioning the IDEA at all or what needs to be changed, kept, or fixed in it, she stated that the issue that needs to be addressed is "equal access" for children with special needs.

EQUAL ACCESS? Seriously? We HAVE equal access - that is what the original version of the Statute fought for in the early 70's, when children with disabilities were literally prohibited from attending our public schools. Equal access is so far in the minority of what needs to be addressed in special education I hardly know where to begin. Our problems are not that children with disabilities aren't allowed into the buildings; our problem is what happens when they get there! What about a Free and Appropriate Public Education? What about "meaningful educational benefit?" What about giving children with special needs the tools to thrive and prosper and be fully independent adults, which is what the IDEA now stands for? We are decades from equal access being the key question, and apparently Gov. Palin is not aware of that fact.

Now, you might say, "Well, Jen, I am a parent of a child with special needs and I didn't know that either." Okay, my response: "Are you running for Vice President of the United States? Are you telling the nation that you would see yourself as the voice for those children within the federal government? If you were, do you think you might have looked into it a little bit?"

It is not terribly surprising to me that Gov. Palin's views on this are so far outdated. I have traveled to Alaska to give a speech to parents and professionals on the subject of the rights of children with special needs, in particular children with autism spectrum disorders. I was stunned by how far behind the State was from the vast majority of the rest of the country on the education of children with disabilities. Perhaps, for Alaskans, "equal access" IS the problem, but it is certainly not the case in Connecticut or most of the rest of the country. I am in regular contact with a colleague of mine who is a parents' attorney in Alaska, who has had to fight tooth and nail for children with special needs in Alaska simply to secure them the most basic of services that we take for granted here. I for one do not want the rest of the country to use Alaska's system of educating our most vulnerable children as a paradigm.

Okay, yes, you all know I'm a liberal ... but that's one of the reasons that I chose to get into the field of representing children with special needs, because I believe in my heart that this last bastion of civil rights is absolutely critical to fight. We need major fixes in our special education system, and if you think that who is in the White House does not effect you on this issue, you couldn't be more wrong. IT MATTERS. It matters in terms of funding and at least as, if not more, importantly, enforcement. Our IDEA enforcement, even in States like CT where we have zealous advocacy, is woefully inadequate. School districts routinely violate the procedural and substantive rights of children and parents and only in a small fraction of cases are they taken to task for it. It also matters because the next President will have at least a few Supreme Court appointments to make. We have had more decisions from the United States Supreme Court in the area of special education law in the last few years than we had for decades. Those decisions have tremendous impact on whether parents have the right to have proper evaluations done for their children, how and when parents can exercise their rights under the IDEA, who has the burden of proof in Due Process Hearings, and a myriad of other issues which directly impact our children with special needs.

Whether we properly educate and embrace our children with disabilities is crucial to the future of this country, as the cost of NOT doing so will be far larger than the cost of doing so ... leaving out the fact that it happens to also be the right thing to do in a great society. This issue should be front and center for any candidate for the White House, and I write to let you know that, at least as far as Gov. Palin is concerned, it has been an opportunity not only missed, but frighteningly misunderstood. It does not bode well for her, for us, or most importantly, for the children we love who need and deserve better in an "advocate in the White House."

I will be casting my vote on November 4th for Obama-Biden, and I hope you will join me. They and their party have been on the side of children with special needs historically, and they will be on their side in the future. As our economy implodes and State and local educational budgets tighten, if we do not turn this around now, I fear that we will, once again, be fighting only for "equal access" for our kids. That is unacceptable to me.

Finally, for any of our more conservative clients who I may have offended, my apologies; I respect your views even if I disagree with them.

Thanks for reading.

Best, Jennifer Laviano
The Law Offices of Jennifer Laviano, LLC
Sherman, CT
Lavlaw3@aol.com

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Andrew said...

Thanks for posting. It's so important people know the truth about Sarah Palin since the masses buy the platitudes.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

I'd like to add that guest posts do not necessarily reflect my views. In this case, however, they do. I am an independent who began supporting Obama-Biden relatively late in the campaign. I do not appreciate Palin's empty claims as "the special needs candidate." - Miss Dennis

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trouble is, the IDEA Act only adds buureaucracy and paperwork for teachers. It does NOT help special children. I taught for 35 years and the government needs to get out of the business of education. I also have a Downs.

IDEA is a BAD IDEA.

Palin will deal with it a better way.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I support Obama-Biden for many reasons. This is simply one more of them.

4:17 AM  
Anonymous Caren said...

Thank you so much for being able to share this with us.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this.

Schoolgal

6:10 PM  
Blogger whatsherfeace said...

Palin only recently became a parent of a Special Needs Child and I can say it takes a while to really understand the true bearing of what this means to ones family.
Patti

7:27 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

WOW! I am honored to have been guided to your blog. I'm looking forward to what can happen from here. I am struck with your compassion and conviction. We all have our areas that we feel strongly guided. My area is art and mental health.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous weirsdo said...

Thanks for researching Palin's stance on this issue. Although as a former college teacher I have some reservations about IDEA (for example, someone with a head injury so bad she cannot remember to attend class should NOT get a diploma!), I am happy the election turned out as it did.

8:50 AM  

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