Friday, October 17, 2008

Palin Seems to Have No Idea What IDEA Is -- And That's a Problem

I recently had an insightful conversation with Jennifer Laviano, an attorney in Connecticut who has devoted her career to representing children with disabilities. A note she wrote to her clients, friends, and colleagues has started making the rounds on the Internet, and I wanted to confirm the letter was really from her -- and to ask if I could post it more widely.

Jennifer initially intended to keep her political views to herself. She didn't want to offend anyone who may support McCain-Palin, but so many of her clients were asking her opinion that she wanted to provide some information. She decided to write the letter when Gov. Palin demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal statute that governs special education. Here are some of her main points. I encourage you to read the entire letter.

"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....Neither McCain nor Palin have provided those positions on the IDEA to parent advocacy groups....I was extremely disappointed in McCain's 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 '70s, when children with disabilities were literally prohibited from attending our public schools....Our problems are not that children with disabilities aren’t allowed into the buildings; our problem is what happens when they get there! ... We are decades from equal access being the key question, and apparently Gov. Palin is not aware of that fact.

"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....

"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.'"
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