Sunday, March 19, 2017

Reasons for Optimism. No, Really.

Sometimes you just need someone to tell you everything's going to be okay. That's why I just read (and loved) Ruy Teixeira's The Optimist Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think. As reporter and author E.J. Dionne, Jr., said, "Beware: This is the rare political book than could force you to smile."

Teixeira makes a compelling case that the best is yet to come for progressive policies. And the book was published just a few weeks ago, so yes, it takes into account the Trump administration and all of the threats it brings.

The Problem with Pessimism

As Teixeira puts it, "pessimism dramatically undermines the appeal of the left. Why on earth would anyone sign up with a movement that believes the situation is so hopeless? What's so inspiring about that?...Pessimism makes people less likely to believe in positive change, not more likely."

During the Obama administration, we saw a lot of policy successes that will not be reversed, he writes, but "when the left was winning, it often acted as if it was losing." Instead of telling people how bad things have become, he argues, we need to spotlight what's working and build on it. The left needs a positive vision, compelling arguments, and leaders who can embody them.

Reasons for Optimism

Progress has slowed down, but it hasn't stopped. "What's correct is that people want to move up from their current life, not that they believe there is nothing good about their current life....Today, we live in freer, more democratic, less violent, and more prosperous world than we ever have before."

Things are good, and they will get better. "The problems we face today are solvable and, moreover, are likely to be solved in the coming decades. Life for ordinary citizens should improve dramatically over the course of the 21st century."

Demographic changes favor the progressive movement. We're witnessing a societal shift from manufacturing toward a postindustrial, knowledge-based society that's part of a global economy, and that is not going to reverse. Conservatives are clinging to shrinking populations to win elections, and the math just doesn't add up to future success. At the same time, progressives must recognize that emerging constituencies -- including immigrants and minorities, professionals, the highly educated, women, singles, non-religious, Millennials -- "by and large are not the chief beneficiaries of existing welfare states and need a 21st-century version of progressive state action to enable their future."

The Piketty Problem

In Capital in the 21st Century, French economist Thomas Piketty notes that by its very nature, capitalism tends to lead to inequality, concentration of wealth among a few, and lower living standards for the masses. And the way the left and right approach "the Piketty problem," Teixeira says, is very different. "The left sees this as a real problem that can't be solved but the market alone. The right is defined by its defense of market outcomes, no matter how dismal." And that disconnect works in the favor of the left: "The right's view is out of touch with current and future economic reality and will be increasingly unpopular with voters."

We're seeing a real example of that now. Many lower- and middle-class voters bought into the criticisms of Obamacare -- and in fact didn't realize that "Obamacare" (which they hated and wanted repealed) was the same thing as the Affordable Care Act (which they supported because it gave them access to health care). But many of the people who love the rhetoric about making the government smaller, building a wall, and repealing Obamacare will be seriously hurt by the Trump administration's health care and budget proposals. The Republicans' game -- tricking people to get elected (Trump), lying to them about the consequences of cuts (Ryan), and disregarding the human impact of these decisions (Mulvaney) -- just isn't sustainable. In the short term, rich people will get richer and many poor and disadvantaged people will be hurt, but over time, our system will hold these officials accountable. Maybe as soon as the mid-term elections.

Teixeira argues that progressives will be more successful if they embrace the fact that in a capitalist society, good economic times will lead to upward mobility and personal optimism, which in turn will promote social generosity, tolerance, and a sense of shared purpose. So instead of whining about injustice, he says, progressives should point out that high inequality is an obstacle to growth -- for everyone. "Capitalism must be actively pointed in a different direction by adopting a new approach that pushes back against inequality and promotes the economic health of the middle and working classes as the key driver of growth." And the left needs to talk about inequality not just as a problem because it's unfair, but as an obstacle for growth -- for all.

The Opportunity Today

As I read The Optimist Leftist, I often found myself thinking, "Yeah, but..." -- because the challenges we face today are real. We can't ignore those threats, and while we embrace an optimistic view for long-term justice and equality, we have to fight to defend the progress we've made, and push back on bad policy. At the same time, Teixeira's advice is that we see this as a time for defense as we prepare to be on offense. "It is absolutely necessary to agitate for progress during bad times -- to defend progressive gains, to push reforms forward when they are possible, and, of course, to develop the strength of the left. But the strategic imperative of bad times should be to prepare for good times and help make those good times happen."

With a more optimistic view of the long term, I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing. Instead of just telling my elected officials why I oppose cuts to programs I support, I'm telling them how those programs have helped my family and people I know and care about. I'm not just calling the people I oppose, but also thanking my representatives who are supportive and reasonable -- and giving them the information they need to keep fighting.

We're moving in the right direction, and Trump's election does not change who we are -- and will be -- as a country and society. And in the meantime, we can't sit by and wait for things to get better.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Who's the Most Heartless of These Heartless Bastards?

During the campaign, Donald Trump offered a populist message that resonated with just enough people to get him elected. He promised he wouldn't cut Medicaid. He told people their health insurance would be better and more affordable. Well, it turns out he either lied or changed his mind about improving people's lives, because his proposed health plan and budget would devastate millions of people while benefitting the wealthiest Americans.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, his health plan would leave 14 million more people without health insurance in 2018, which will rise to 21 million in 2020 and then 24 million in 2026. But his billionaire friend need not worry. Repeal of taxes in the Affordable Care Act will largely be passed on to the wealthiest Americans. People in the top 0.1 percent (earning at least $3.9 million per year) will get a tax cut of $207,000.

After Trump got elected, I told friends I was worried about a lot of things. But my overarching concern was that Trump and the people he was surrounding himself with simply don't care about other people (or at least haven't demonstrated any interest in improving the lives of average citizens).

That matters, because you have to be pretty heartless to support these devastating policies and budget cuts. In addition to taking away health coverage from millions of people, Trump and his team are pushing to cut funding for medical research, mental health care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, energy assistance for poor families, and after-school programs -- and that's just a few examples. It also eliminates Community Development Block Grants, which help fund programs like Meals on Wheels, a program that provides meals to 2.4 million poor senior citizens.

Let's play a game called "Which Bastard is Most Heartless?"

Nominee: Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House
Nominated for: Says taking away people's health care is an "act of mercy." I'll let Representative Joe Kennedy III respond:

Nominee: Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget
Nominated for: Says there's no evidence that providing food to poor children helps them do better in school.

Nominee: Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services
Nominated for: Tells a cancer survivor who's alive because of Medicaid expansion that he should settle for a small tax cut instead of getting heath coverage.

Nominee: Donald Trump, President of the United States
Nominated for: Lies, broken promises, and actions that hurt poor people and make millionaires and billionaires richer. Do you remember his campaign promise to not cut Medicaid? What about these assurances? "We're going to have insurance for everybody." "I am going to take care of everybody. Everybody's going to be taken care of much better than they're taking care of now.""It'll be another plan. But they'll be beautifully covered."
Read "President Trump's False Promises on Healthcare," from The Hill, March 2, 2017.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Medicaid Cuts: "A War on Disabled People"

For families affected by disabilities, the threat to Medicaid is one of the greatest concerns about the proposed American Health Care Act. I don't need to rewrite all the information about this, but if you want to understand the risk and how it may affect people with disabilities, here's some recommended reading.

During the campaign, candidate Trump promised he would not cut Medicaid. But boy, has he backed off of that, as shown by the budget estimates from the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Read "Trump Promised Not to Cut Medicaid. His Health Bill Will Cut $880 Billion From It," Vox, March 13, 2017

This headline from Forbes speaks for itself. Citing a column in the New England Journal of Medicine, this article shows that shifting Medicaid to a block-grant program will let states decide who gets services and which services they get. For example, they could choose to deny behavioral health services, which is what people with autism and other developmental disabilities depend on.
Read "A Shift to Medicaid Block Grants is a Threat to People with Disabilities," Forbes, March 9, 2017

This isn't really about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Do you realize that Medicaid covers 57 million people, six times the number covered by the marketplaces created through the ACA?
Read "Sleeper Issue of Medicaid's Future Could Prove Health-Care Plans' Stumbling Block," The Washington Post, March 12, 2017

In the Post article, Bob Kafka, a Texas leader of the national disability rights group ADAPT says he is concerned that cuts to Medicaid would lead to the elimination of home- and community-based services that allow people to live independently -- and force them into nursing homes. "What the Republicans are doing," Kafka says, "is basically a war on disabled people."

Proposed Health Changes "Would Fail My Disabled Brother"

Please read and share stories like this. Writing in the Denver Post this week, Alyssa Roberts expressed concern about how severe cuts to Medicaid would affect her 19-year-old brother, who has physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. 

"Overlooked in the Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act is a drastic change to traditional Medicaid funding that threatens services for more than 10 million people with disabilities," she writes. "For decades, Medicaid has been their lifeline — providing everything from specialized therapies to support for daily living. Medicaid keeps people with disabilities out of institutions. It pays for caretakers so their parents can go to work. And it’s more efficient than private insurance."

Capping the federal share of Medicaid funding "leaves two options," she says. "Either shift costs to already stretched state budgets or cut services drastically." And those cuts will likely include "hearing aids, at-home care, physical therapy, and some people denied coverage altogether." Other likely consequences? Pay cuts for low-paid providers and more institutionalization when people can't access in-home care. Yeah, it's bad.

Read "Republicans' Plan for Medicaid Would Fail My Disabled Brother."

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

When is School Choice Not Really a Choice? Insights from the National Association of State Directors of Special Education

This morning I attended a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress called "What's at Stake for Americans with Disabilities in the Trump Era." Advocates, families, and people with disabilities covered a wide range of issues, including Medicaid, Social Security, civil rights, and education. You can watch the hour-long event here.

In the next few days, I'll report on some of the health topics that were discussed, but I want to start with the topic of vouchers and special education, which was addressed very well by Valerie Williams, director of government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

"What's come up a lot lately is the word 'voucher.' Don't get hung up on the word voucher," she said. "When someone talks to you about vouchers, education savings accounts, or scholarships, it's all the same thing. The problem is not the voucher, but the effort to privatize the public school system. Anything that will allow public tax dollars to be diverted to a private school that your child may not be able to attend, that's problematic. Students may be turned away based on disability, sexual orientation, past disciplinary records, or religion."

She offered a realistic scenario of a family with a disabled child that gets a $10,000 to send their child to the school of their choice. First, the parents must sign away their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which include required services, legal protections, and reporting on outcomes. A few things can happen:
  • The school may be a good fit for the child, but the cost may be $20,000, only half of which is covered by the voucher. Or the voucher may not cover the costs of books, uniforms, or transportation, which can be thousands of dollars. "So when you're discussing a middle- or low-income family, they can't make that leap, which means it's not accessible to them, and they honestly don't have a choice."
  • The school may tell them in the first few months that they can't offer the specialized services or equipment that their child needs, in which case the family will have to forego those needs or return to the public system, which is mandated to provide those services.
"If you're in a rural area," Williams explained, "the problem is even bigger. Because funds are diverted outside the public school system, and the only school is the public school, so you literally have no other option, and they have less money to work with."

In closing, Williams said, "We need to make decisions as taxpayers and legislators that will benefit the masses, not a few students. I'm concerned that children and adults with disabilities are going to be sicker, less independent, and not educated to the fullest extent they could be, based on some of the ideas that are floating around right now."

She encouraged the attendees to contact their state and federal elected officials and explain not just what they're against, but also how existing programs benefit them and their families.

Is Vaccine Debate Diverting Attention from the Real Risks to People with Autism?

When you hear "Trump" and "autism," you may first think about the president's support for debunked myths that vaccines cause autism. But the uproar over that issue maybe detracting from the real concern -- the harm that will be caused by repealing protection in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), according to health policy experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Center for Mental Health Policy and Services at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a column posted today in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors point out that the ACA has expanded access to health insurance for low-income people in 31 states and the District of Columbia by expanding the Medicaid program -- the largest health care payer for people with autism and developmental disabilities.

One of the authors, Colleen Barry of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, "These rollbacks could be devastating for children and adults with autism and other disabilities. It is important not to let the controversy over the debunked link between vaccines and autism distract from what is at stake in terms of the potential loss of critical benefits this vulnerable group relies on."

The authors are also concerned about threats to the rights of students with disabilities. Barry said, "People who care about preserving and expanding services for children and adults with autism need to pay attention to the conversations in Washington around the ACA repeal and threats to IDEA to make sure important protections and guarantees are not lost."

Read "Care for Autism and Other Disabilities -- A Future in Jeopardy."

New Analysis: 5 Ways Trump Agenda is Disastrous for People with Disabilities

More than 15 million people with disabilities, including children and seniors, would be at risk under the Medicaid cuts proposed by House Republicans and endorsed by President Trump, according to a new study by the Center for American Progress. I'm going to address some of these points in future posts, but for now, here's the short version:
1. Trump's health care plan would push millions with disabilities into institutions.
2. Trump's policies would make it harder for people with disabilities to work.
3. Trump's education plan would harm students with disabilities.
4. Trump would slash programs that provide basic living standards.
5. Trump's administration would weaken disability rights and protections.

The analysis concludes: "If Trump were serious about helping the workers and families who've been left behind -- including millions of Americans with disabilities and their families -- he would reject policies that undermine health care, education, and other basic living standards; push people put of the labor force as well as from their homes into institutions; and erode enforcement of disability rights in favor of a policy agenda that gives people with disabilities and their families a fair shot."

Read more at "5 Ways President Trump's Agenda is a Disaster for People with Disabilities."

This is a great article to share with your friends and family members who support the Republicans' proposal. If you have a personal connection to disability issues, you have a powerful voice -- this is a short, powerful analysis that can change minds and inspire action.

SHARE THIS VIDEO: How Medicaid Cuts will Harm People with Disabilities

Just released today, this video by the Center for American Progress shows three perspectives on how proposed cuts to Medicaid will threaten the health, independence, and lives of people with disabilities. Watch and share.

Use this link to share on your Facebook and Twitter accounts:

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

As Budget Cuts Loom, No One's in Charge of Special Education

Christina Samuels, who writes the "On Special Education" blog for Education Week, continues her good reporting on issues related to students with disabilities. Today she asks, "When Will We Have a New Federal Special Education Chief? (And Why It Matters)." Interestingly, she points out that four assistant secretaries for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) have been appointed during a president's first term. Those four were nominated during April to June and confirmed as early as June and as late as October.

The advocates who Christina has interviewed aren't concerned about the non-political staff who are involved in special education policy and operations. But with a proposed increase in defense spending and likely cuts in other areas, this vacancy could put special education programs in jeopardy. Katherine Beh Neas, vice president for government relations for Easterseals, told Samuels, "If you don't have a political person in place advocating for the political part of the functions of that department, it leaves the department at risk."

Read the EdWeek article, which also addresses potentially harmful changes to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). And take a look at Christina's blog, On Special Education.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Vouchers and Special Education: A Primer

Thanks to Education Week for this graphic illustration of how special education money gets to local schools. As Secretary Betsy DeVos shifts the focus of the public education conversation toward school choice and vouchers, it's important to understand how the current system works. There are a bunch of articles and analyses about this, but here's what I think is important to know.

1. Special education is already underfunded. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in 1975, Congress authorized funding for special education up to 40 percent of average per-pupil spending in public schools. But the current federal contribution is just about 16 percent. Read more details about this at EdCentral from the New America.

Rising spending for special education over the past 15 years is mostly the result of more children being identified as "disabled," not a disproportionate increase in the cost of special education services.

2. Investing in private schools takes resources away from public schools. Read this account by Bonnie Kandel, a parent in Indiana, "Civil Rights Crisis Unfolding: Most Needy Children in America at Risk." She's concerned about the impact that voucher systems and Education Savings Accounts would have on her son, who has autism is attending first grade in a public school (after being asked to leave two private preschools). "Options for students with special needs, like my son, are worse than abysmal. Voucher programs are programs where schools choose the child. He is expensive to educate. Not only does he need special interventions that cost money directly, but he also needs teachers with experience and higher education specializing in autism." Kandel points out that Indiana public schools have already lost $485 million because of the push for "school choice." And she's worried about what will happen with more cuts in more states.

3. Students in private schools often forfeit protections and rights. Voucher programs are risky for families because students who attend private schools aren't guaranteed the same rights and protections as students in public schools are. Many states require parents to sign away some or all of their protections under IDEA, Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act to participate in voucher programs. If a private school determines that a student needs support services like occupational or speech therapy, parents often have to cover those services when they exceed the value of the voucher. And if parents are not satisfied with the education at a private school, they have no legal recourse -- their only choice may be to remove their child and find a new school.

4. Voucher programs have not been shown to improve academic performance -- and have actually worsened academic outcomes in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and other states. As Kevin Carey reports in The New York Times, the latest studies are "very unusual." He writes: "When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana 'as large as any I’ve seen in the literature' — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research." Read Carey's column, "Dismal Results from Vouchers Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins."

Learn more from these recent reports from the Center for American Progress:

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Reaction from Guest at Congressional Address: "We all left feeling expendable and disposable."

Jeannine Chartier, Executive and Artistic Director, VSA Arts Rhode Island
Jeannine Chartier had a unique vantage point for President Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday night. As a guest of Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI), the disability advocate and director of VSA Arts Rhode Island watched in the gallery with other invited guests. She shared some reflections with me yesterday as she waited to board her flight back to Rhode Island.

What was it like to watch the speech in person?
It was an honor to be invited by Congressman Cicilline, and he graciously pushed my wheelchair through the long and winding underground "accessible" pathway over to the Capitol. It was an incredible experience, even if it was sometimes horrifying to hear the president's vision for our country.

Who were you seated with?
I was with other guests who had been invited by Democratic members of Congress, and our seating was scattered throughout many Republican guests. Mixed into my corner of the gallery: a woman who told me she had had a heart transplant, women wearing headscarves, several Native Americans in traditional dress, and people of difference races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation -- some wearing buttons promoting causes or simply #resist.

What was it like to be sitting with such a diverse group while President Trump presented his policy proposals?
During much of the speech, we sat stoic while enthusiastic Republicans leaped to their feet applauding his calls to dismantle laws regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline, EPA, health care, and education, while ignoring the rights of minorities (race, gender,  LGBTQ, etc.). While the speech started out on a positive note acknowledging disapproval of anti-Semitism and racism, his words still ultimately seemed to promote stigma and fear, and I feel we all left feeling expendable and disposable.

The president did acknowledge Rare Disease Day.
Yes, the individuals and their stories in the later part of the speech -- a parade of "victims" overcoming hardships. It just seemed to be exploitation and pandering, and completely disconnected from his previous speeches and actions. Sorry if I sound cynical or jaded, but the young woman in the wheelchair and how she was referenced reminded me of the old Jerry Lewis telethon days. No disrespect to the individuals, but his stated plans to dismantle policies and regulations that protect many of us who are minorities to have access to education and health care will only increase our struggles.

What other moments stand out?
A few come to mind. The shock and groan that went out from our side of the aisle about VOICE (Victims Of Immigration Crime Enforcement) was palpable. I don't know if that translated on TV, because the cheers from Republicans may have overwhelmed it, but it was obviously scary to a LOT of people in the room -- people looked at each other in eyes-wide-open shock. And my side of the room couldn't contain WTF laughter over the line, "The time for trivial fights is over." Did he really say that? Oh Lordy...and he pointed to Democrats like they are the ones tweeting at 3:00am.

Are you happy you went?
Yes. It was exhausting physically, but more so emotionally – it was a long speech full of disturbing rhetoric outlining a dark path we are heading down in this Trump presidency. It was a powerful reminder that there's so much to fight for -- and fight against. But I keep reminding myself, it's a marathon and not a sprint.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Likely Winners and Losers in Trump Budget Proposal

You can read a detailed budget analysis in many places, including this one from Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic (one of my favorite sources for news and commentary). But I know you're busy, so here's a quick take on likely winners and losers.

Defense contractors
Older white Americans (4/5 of seniors today are white)

Younger generations and minorities (47 percent of Americans under 30 are minorities)
Poor people
People with disabilities
National debt -- more spending and lower taxes = more debt
The environment

The president's budget proposal protects Social Security and Medicare but slashes other domestic programs that represent important investments in our future, like education, training, and scientific research. As Brownstein points out, "In the long run, the older white population needs more of the younger non-white population to obtain the skills to reach the middle class -- and pay the payroll taxes that support the federal retirement programs on which those graying whites depend." Or in other words, "There is no financial security for the gray without economic opportunity for the brown." (A point Brownstein makes in his excellent article "Why Trump Has It Backwards on Minority Groups.")

For more budget details, read "Trump's Budget Proposal Threatens Democratic and Republican Ambitions."

The Key to Ensuring Disability Rights? It May Be the Courts

I've shared a discouraging prediction with several friends: I think it's unlikely that the rights, treatment, and support for people with disabilities will improve over the next four years. The best we can hope for is to maintain the protections and programs that are currently in place.

That's why I was encouraged by the rapid response of the ACLU and the courts to President Trump's travel ban, which was unquestionably unconstitutional and a denial of rights based on religion. I know that will be the first of many damaging policies that will get shot down on legal grounds.

Writing for Rewire, Robyn Powell emphasizes the importance of the courts in defending and even advancing rights. She says: "As a disabled woman and an attorney, I am keenly aware of two things: Disability rights are facing significant threats under the Trump administration, and courts can greatly advance or hinder civil rights." She cites the recent Supreme Court decision Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, which sided with the family of a 13-year-old girl who was denied the right to bring her service dog to school. The court ruled that a family can seek enforcement under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) without first going through the administrative process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Powell writes: "If the election and Trump have taught me anything, it has been to expect the unexpected. What is clear to me is that disability rights, civil rights, Muslim rights, Jewish rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and the rights of people of color are all under attack....It is important that we actively pursue all means necessary for enforcing our civil rights...[and] the courts may indeed be our best option."

Read "Are the Courts the Solution to Ensuring Disability Rights During the Trump Era?"

Disability/Arts Advocate Invited to Joint Session of Congress

When President Trump gives his first address to Congress tonight, at least one person in the audience will be listening for assurance that he will support the laws and programs that protect people with disabilities. Jeannine Chartier, a survivor of childhood polio and head of Vision Strength Access (VSA) Arts Rhode Island, will attend the joint session as a guest of U.S. Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI).

In a new release on Rep. Cicilline's website, Chartier says:
"Like so many of my friends and colleagues, I have been shocked and frightened by how Donald Trump conducted himself as a candidate and how he has governed as president. As a woman with a disability, an artist, and the director of an arts education nonprofit, I hope that my attendance will show the president that Americans like me will not just stay at home and let him undo all of the progress we have made in recent years. America is our country too, and we deserve a voice."

For 21 years, Chartier has been the executive and artistic director of VSA, a Rhode Island program that provides arts programs for children and adults with disabilities.

Take a moment to thank Congressman Cicilline for shining a light on the accomplishments and rights of people with disabilities.
401-729-5600 or 202-225-4911

Monday, February 27, 2017

Secretary DeVos: Don't Forget About Civil Rights

Like many civil rights advocates, Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, predicts that the Trump Administration will try to aggressively scale back enforcement of civil rights in public schools. Read "Law Professor: Expect Big Rollback of Civil Rights Enforcement in Education Under Trump and DeVos" from the Washington Post.

Furthering that concern are suggestions that the new head of the department's Office of Civil Rights may be Gail Heriot, who in the past has been critical of the office for taking too strong a stance on enforcement. (And who once likened transgender students to people who want to believe they are Russian princesses.)

More than 60 civil rights groups have written to Secretary Betsy DeVos urging her to appoint a head of the Office of Civil Rights who has experience fighting discrimination against marginalized students. In other words, someone who's qualified.

In the letter, the groups say:
"Every child has the right to attend a public school that is warm, welcoming, rigorous, and that prepares them for success in life Our bedrock civil rights laws, made meaningful through enforcement and oversight, stand guard to protect that right and ensure equal educational opportunity....The selection of an individual to lead the Office of Civil Rights is one of the most significant decisions you and the president will make with regard to the civil rights of the nation's students....The assistant secretary should have a track record of experience with a range of civil rights issues, have experience with and be committed to remedying individual and systemic discrimination, be prepared to follow wherever the law and the facts lead, and believe that every student in kindergarten through 12th grade has the right to be in school every day and be treated with dignity without the burden of discrimination." Read the full letter.

Here's who signed the letter. If you agree, let the secretary's office know at 202-401-3000.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
National Women's Law Center
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity
American Association of People with Disabilities
American Association of University Women (AAUW)
American Civil Liberties Union
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee (AJC)
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Anti-Defamation League
The Arc of the United States
Association of University Centers on Disabilities
Augustus F. Hawkins Foundation
Coalition for Disability Health Equity
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
Education Law Center-PA
Equal Rights Advocates
Human Rights Campaign
International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies (IAOHRA)
Japanese American Citizens League
Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
LatinoJustice PRLDEF
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
League of United Latin American Citizens
National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE)
National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
National Association of Human Rights Workers
National Bar Association
National Black Justice Coalition
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Congress of American Indians
National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA)
National Council of Jewish Women
National Council of La Raza
National Down Syndrome Congress
National Education Association
National Employment Law Project
National Indian Education Association
National LGBTQ Task Force
National Organization for Women
National Partnership for Women & Families
National Urban League
OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates
People For the American Way
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
Southern Poverty Law Center
Woodhull Freedom Foundation
World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Op-ed: "Disabled, Shunned, and Silenced in Trump's America"

Writing in the New York Times, Melissa Blake, a journalist with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, says she felt like "I'd just been punched in the gut" when she realized the disabilities section of the White House website had been removed. Not updated. Removed.

Here's the archived website section on disabilities, which commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and recognizes the importance of "ensuring that people with disabilities have the same access to the American Dream as every other citizen," through education, employment, health care, and civil rights.

Realizing that the new administration had chosen to completely eliminate this content, she heard a voice that sometimes makes her question her place in society: "You don't matter." "You're not worth it." "You're not a person."

She writes: "I’m afraid of living in a country that would shun people with disabilities as if they didn’t exist. I’m afraid to live in a country that sends these kinds of messages and think it’s perfectly all right. Because it’s most definitely not all right and never will be.

"If Trump really cared about giving people their power back, it would behoove him to actually sit down with members of the disability community and listen — really listen — to their stories and their concerns and their recommendations for the future.

"My mantra has always been 'I’m a person,' and that has never been truer than right now. Yes, I am a person. I matter. People with disabilities matter. I will never stop fighting for our rights and against bullies. I will never not be a person. I’m taking back my power and I want President Trump to know it."

Read "Disabled, Shunned, and Silenced in Trump's America."

Read the New York Times' weekly column exploring the lives of people with disabilities.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

BREAKING: Update on IDEA Website

Today I was interviewed by Emma Brown, the Washington Post reporter who covered the missing Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) website last week. She told me what she's heard from the department, and I told her what I'm hearing from parents.

From her article, "Education Department's Special-Ed Has Been Down for More Than a Week, and Parents are Not Happy":
"There's been no estimate of when it'll be restored, no explanation of why it's not there," said Mark Miller, who blogs about special-education issues and is a Montgomery County, Md., parent of a child with special needs. "It makes people feel like we're not important and our children are not important. Their communication has been very poor and is contributing to the perception that this is not a priority for the secretary."

The article was posted online at 5:21pm today, and at some point the website reappeared, pretty much in the same form it was before -- Which is odd considering what a department official told Brown:

  • "The site has been troubled by technical glitches and IT experts are not comfortable restoring the site at this point because its server remains unstable and could crash at any time." When did they change their mind, and is the site still unstable?
  • "Everything that was available on the website is available elsewhere on the main Education Department site." The official either lied or was misinformed. This simply was not true.
This isn't just about a website. When it comes time for this administration to recommend policy affecting children with disabilities, remember that the department's first actions regarding special education were to:
  • Announce on Twitter that a "technical glitch" had removed special-education information from the department's website (only after this has been pointed out by numerous concerned families).
  • Ignore phone calls, emails, and other inquiries from teachers, parents, and senators.
  • Not post any follow-up information for a week (and they still haven't).
  • State that the website could not be restored because it was not stable.
  • Falsely claim the information was available somewhere else on the education department's website.
  • Restore the website after allowing the issue to blow up due to a lack of honesty and transparency.
In related news, yesterday Secretary DeVos launched her official Twitter account, @BetsyDevosED. Which is appropriate, because in only her second week, I already feel like I've been #BetsyDevosed.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Betsy DeVos, You've Got Mail. Pressure to Restore IDEA Website Intensifies as Senators Demand Accountability

Thanks to activists and concerned citizens like you, Secretary Betsy DeVos is feeling real pressure to restore the IDEA website. This movement started with phone calls, tweets, and emails from people like you and me, and now two senators have raised the stakes. In a letter to Secretary DeVos on Friday, Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell demanded an explanation and a plan to restore the information. Read the letter below and then take a minute to thank Senators Murray and Cantwell for their support on this important issue. Twitter: @SenatorCantwell and @PattyMurray. Facebook: Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell. Here's the letter:

During your [confirmation] hearing...your statements regarding the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) raised concerns among children with disabilities and their parents about your the the Trump administration's view on special education and the rights of these families and students. We expect you and the Trump administration to fulfill your commitment to all students, including students with disabilities.

To that end, we are deeply concerned that prior to your confirmation and arrival at the department, the centralized resource website for IDEA ( became inaccessible to the public for more than a week, and is now redirecting people to a site for the Office of Special Education. The OSEP website lacks much of the information previously available.

The department's failure to keep this critical resource operational makes it harder for parents, educators, and administrators to find the resources they need to implement this federal law and protect the rights of children with disabilities. For more than a decade, this website, which was released by President George W. Bush's Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, has served as a one-stop shop for resources related to IDEA and its regulations. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services has consistently updated this website as Congress has enacted new legislation and the courts have interpreted the law....

...We are seeking a detailed explanation for the disappearance ofthese centralized resources, and the plan to restore this critical information. We request you provide our staff with the following information:
1)  Your assurance that this website will not be stripped down in any way during your tenure.
2)  A detailed timeline of when the centralized resources previously available at became inaccessible to public view and all subsequent steps that were taken to restore these resources as well as all steps taken to provide the public with more limited information from third party sites or other areas ofthe Department website.
3)  To the extent there are (or were) technical problems that led to the removal of the centralized resources, please provide a technical report on the issue, how it was resolved and/or when it is expected to be resolved if the issue was limited to this specific part of the Department's website, and if so why.
4)  A detailed plan for restoring the information previously available including all previously available resources for students, parents, schools, districts, state governments, researchers, and policy makers containing information about their rights under IDEA, information about the law and regulations to facilitate high degrees of compliance, model forms, presentations pertaining to IDEA, materials for training, and guidance documents relating to IDEA.
5)  The date by which all information previously available at will again be accessible to the public at a central location.
6)  A detailed plan for how parents will be informed of the problems with the website and what has been done to address the problems, to ensure that nobody who went to the website in recent days will be discouraged from accessing this information in the future.
7)  A detailed description of any content from the website that was modified by the Department during the period oftime the website was removed from the public domain. For each change, a detailed explanation for the modification.

Thank you for your attention to this pressing matter.

Welcome to the working world, Betsy. This is called accountability.

Medicaid Cuts a "Prescription to Hurt the Neediest Kids"

Proposed cuts to Medicaid will significantly harm students with disabilities, according to a national survey of school superintendents. A plan that Republican leaders are pushing would reduce Medicaid spending by 25 percent by distributing Medicaid funding through a block grant or a per-capita cap, shifting costs to states. It's estimated that these cuts would actually be 30 to 35 percent when combined with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Under Medicaid, schools are eligible to receive funding for medically necessary services for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This revenue helps cover the costs of nurses, therapists, and others that provide services for children with disabilities and health services for students living in poverty.

School leaders surveyed by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said a 30 percent cut to Medicaid would disproportionately affect children with disabilities. Survey respondents (school superintendents and assistant superintendents, school business officials, and special education directors) anticipate the following consequences:

  • Schools would need to reduce services and support for students with disabilities.
  • Schools would be less able to provide qualified therapists (physical, occupational, and speech).
  • Many schools will struggle to comply with the requirements of the IDEA, which is already "woefully underfunded."
  • Health services for children with chronic conditions would be reduced.
  • The inability of families to access regular check-ins, immunizations, and screenings for vision, dental, and hearing would increase absenteeism and interfere with their children's ability to learn. 

Read the report.

It's important to note that cuts to Medicaid would impact all children, not just those who are low-income or in special education. As one respondent said, "Without Medicaid funds, we would be forced to cut services to the majority of our students to make up for the special education mandates, which are mostly underfunded or not funded at all." That would mean larger class sizes, tighter budgets for salaries and programs, and cuts to important support like guidance counselors and mental health services. It would also be difficult to attract and retain high-quality educators and administrators.

The report concludes:
"School leaders are deeply concerned by the impact a block grant would have on districts’ ability to deliver critical special education supports and health services to students. We urge mem- bers of Congress to weigh how children will be impacted by a Medicaid block grant and to reach out to school leaders for speci c insights about the importance of their school-based Medicaid programs for students."

Read "School District Chiefs: Proposed Medicaid Changes Would Hurt Poor Children and Students with Disabilities" from the Washington Post.

Read the report, "Cutting Medicaid: A Prescription to Hurt the Neediest Kids."

Thursday, February 9, 2017

More on the IDEA Website: What's There (not much), What's Not (a lot)

The Department of Education took a baby step in restoring information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but many resources that families depend on are missing. Thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I took a close look at what was there as recently as Jan. 18 and the lightweight page links to now.

Here's a before and after. On the left is what the IDEA microsite used to look like. On the right is the page now redirects to -- just a subpage for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services:

What the homepage of looked like on Jan. 18:

From this page, you can choose between IDEA Part B (which applies to ages 3-21) or IDEA Part C (birth to age 2). Here's what the Part B page looked like on Jan. 18:

So basically, the Education Department has this information available:
  • The text of the IDEA statute.
  • The text of the IDEA Part B regulations
  • The text of the IDEA Part C regulations
  • Memos and policy letters from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
  • Training resources for state and local agencies
I should also mention that the department's Office of Civil Rights still has this page live, describing the civil rights of students under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

All of the other information and resources for parents, teachers, and school districts is not available, including disproportionality, early intervention, evaluation, funding, how to detect specific learning disabilities, monitoring and enforcement, private schools. and secondary transition. It's missing training materials, model forms, video clips, presentations, and Q&A documents, and more.

The ball's in your court (still), Department of Education. Do you care enough about IDEA and the families and teachers who need this information to fix your technical glitch?

Who will join me in calling the secretary's office at 202-401-3000 every day until this is resolved? Also, tweet to @usedgov, @ED_Spec_Rehab, and @EDCivilRights.

IDEA Website is Back (sort of); Dept. of Education "Functioning Under the Same Laws"

"Please know that OSEP is here, functioning under the same laws, and happy to answer calls and emails about our work whenever possible."
On Thursday night, I left a voicemail for many offices at the Department of Education. This morning,  one replied -- the Office of Special Education Programs. Here are highlights of our email conversation:

I'm reaching out to you in response to your phone call to our office—the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education. I just wanted to let you know that we are working with our tech folks to get up and running as soon as possible, and that we are incredibly sorry for all of the inconvenience the glitch has caused. I completely understand what a blow not having this excellent resource is—our staff use it all the time as well! In the meantime, please use the site below to access the regulations and other resources on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

I know that you and other employees are working hard to continue the important mission of the Department of Education, and in your case, special education. 

As you can imagine, families like mine are concerned about the impact of the new administration on special education. Having the IDEA website go down during this time raises a lot of concerns - as if the department did this intentionally. I know that technical glitches happen, and I think it's important for the department to announce that the site is live and that the department continues to support students with disabilities and the principles of the IDEA.

Is there anything I can tell my concerned friends about the department's commitment in this area?

Thank you for your understanding! We are working on providing updates on these technical difficulties, and notifying the public of this new temporary page that the domain now redirects to.

Please know that OSEP is here, functioning under the same laws, and happy to answer calls and emails about our work whenever possible.

Thanks for helping us spread the word on the website!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The IDEA Website Down: Tell the Education Department You Care (UPDATED)

This morning, when Betsy DeVos started her job as Secretary of Education, many people noticed that an entire section of the department's website was missing -- the part about that pesky Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). During her confirmation hearing, Secretary DeVos expressed a lack of understanding about the federal act that protects the rights of students with disabilities -- and even expressed an opinion that the states should decide what rights children should have.

So you can imagine that even with the official explanation from the department, people are skeptical that this was a mere coincidence, since the majority of the website remains intact and online. Is this an attack on special education, or a technical glitch that will soon be resolved? Neither would surprise me.

What You Can Do:

This is a great opportunity to show the leadership and staff at the Department of Education that parents and advocates are paying attention. We have to be a squeaky wheel, and a broken website is a big deal.

1. Tweet to @usedgov and ask when the site will be available.

2. Keep checking, and let me know when it's back. The actual URL is Tweet to me at @mmiller20910.

3. Call the department and tell the staff you want and need this information. Here are a few numbers:
  • Department of Education, 1-800-872-5327
  • Office of the Secretary, 202-401-3000
  • Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 202-245-7459 (#9 for director) or 202-245-6496
  • Office of Civil Rights, 800-421-3481,
  • Office of the Chief Information Officer, 202-245-6640
Please keep in mind that you will probably reach a non-political staff member. Be polite, but let them know that you are concerned about this, and ask for a specific estimate for when the website will be restored. I've seen firsthand that this is how website issues get fixed -- we need lots of people going to their bosses saying people are asking and/or complaining. If this is truly a technical glitch, it will be easy to fix. If it's not restored soon, that will be a sign of worse things to come.

UPDATE (Feb. 9, 7:30am): I left a voicemail at each of these numbers last night. Today , the voicemail for the Office of the Secretary says, "Sorry, Office of the Secretary is not available. You cannot record a message for Office of the Secretary. This mailbox is full."

Chief Information Officer: "The number you have reached is not in service. This is a recording."

While we still need to call attention to this problem, which is denying families information they need, there IS some IDEA information on the education website at This does not replace the need to restore, but share this with people who need information immediately.

UPDATE TO UPDATE (Feb. 9, 9:00am): The website appears to have been restored. Someone noticed that the blog link doesn't work. Are there other differences?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

She's Your Education Secretary. Now What?

Reposting a message from my Facebook page. Now the work begins.

I'm seeing so many friends expressing surprise/shock that the Senate has confirmed Betsy DeVos as the most unqualified education secretary of all time. I'm not shocked, and I want to tell you why.
"We" - American voters - elected a president who surrounds himself with loyal billionaires. And we've collectively elected a Republican-majority House and Senate, and we're living with the consequences. The Republicans have all the leverage, and (sorry) hearing from constituents isn't as powerful as pressure from the White House and their party's leadership. Money and power > public opinion.
Why would Republican senators who understand and support public education support this nominee? Many reasons:
  1. It's in their own personal interest. Breaking with the party could harm their careers, and going with the majority can be good for them. (Kudos to Senators Collins and Murkowski, but it will be interesting to see how they pay for this vote. And those Republican senators who were supposedly undecided? They were playing a game, just holding out for an incentive to keep them in line. If they went by what they heard from their constituents, they would have voted differently.)
  2. Many Republicans like Senators McCain and Graham have signaled their willingness to challenge President Trump on some big issues. But they have to pick their battles, and the truth is that public education isn't as important to them as Russian interference with our elections and other international issues.
  3. Even more sadly, education just isn't a top issue with everything else going on. During the campaign, it was barely mentioned by any candidate. Clearly, there are few Republicans are willing to fall on their sword over public education.

So now what? Parents, teachers, and others need to pressure our now-Secretary of Education to do the right thing for ALL students. Many of my friends are personally affected by special education. Keep up the pressure, and intensify it. Get over Secretary DeVos's incompetent performance in her confirmation hearings. Get over the fact that she got this job because of her wealth and political donations. Let her know she and her appointees will hear from you on every decision that affects you and your children.
More important, remember how you're feeling today and apply that passion to the mid-term elections. Hold your elected officials accountable, and work to kick them out of office if you think that's what's needed. To make real change, and to prevent further damage, we need checks and balances, and a Democratic majority is in our grasp.
This was a losing effort, but be encouraged by the passion and unity it inspired. Don't give up.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Opposition Grows on DeVos Nomination: Add Your Voice!

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is scheduled to vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education on Tuesday. Senator Franken is saying he won't vote for her, and neither will any of his Democratic colleagues. The question is whether any Republicans are willing to break from party lines to do the right thing and reject one of the least qualified Cabinet nominees in recent history.

Talking to Rachel Maddow last night, Sen. Franken said, “You talk about DeVos. She is someone that there’s not going to be one Democratic vote for her, and we’re trying to find Republicans who will vote against her because she’s an ideologue who knows next to nothing about education policy as we demonstrated, or she demonstrated really, in her confirmation hearing.”

More than a million people have signed petitions against her nomination, and tens of thousands of people have contacted senators to express their opposition. In addition, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities sent a letter to the committee with a list of questions they want Ms. DeVos to answer before being confirmed, especially since she seems to either not understand or not support the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the most important legislation protecting the rights of 6.5 million students with disabilities. The letter concludes:

"A committee vote on Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education should be delayed until Mrs. DeVos has fully answered the above questions, and allows Committee members the opportunity to fully understand how she plans to ensure that students with disabilities receive a quality education with their peers as required by federal statute."

People like you can make a difference. Call 202-225-3121 and tell your representative and senators that you oppose Betsy DeVos, and why.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

LA Times: "Betsy DeVos Embarrassed Herself and Should Be Rejected by the Senate"

In a strongly worded editorial, the Los Angeles Times says Betsy DeVos, President Trump's nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education "doesn't meet the basic qualifications for the post." Stating that her support of school vouchers and her lack of experience in public schools do not disqualify her, "what did render her unacceptable was her abysmal performance at her confirmation hearing, during which she displayed an astonishing ignorance about basic education issues, an extraordinary lack of thoughtfulness about ongoing debates in the field, and an unwillingness to respond to important questions."

It goes on to say, "She was so unprepared that she sounded like a schoolchild who hadn't done her homework. She frankly embarrassed herself and should be rejected by the Senate. Better yet, President-elect Donald Trump should withdraw her name and find someone who at least meets the basic qualifications for the post."

If you agree, what can you do about it? Sign this petition TODAY: "Tell Senate Democrats: Block and resist Betsy DeVos's confirmation as secretary of education."

Monday, January 23, 2017

Betsy DeVos "Unqualified, Unprepared, and Unfit" for Department of Education

Diane Ravitch
Betsy DeVos, President Trump's nominee to head the U.S. Department of Education, is facing strong opposition from elected officials, education advocates, parents, and others because of her lack of experience in and understanding of public schools. The vote, originally scheduled for tomorrow, will be held Jan. 31. That gives you more time to add your voice in opposition. Sign this petition TODAY: "Tell Senate Democrats: Block and resist Betsy DeVos's confirmation as secretary of education."

Diane Ravitch, a respected education professor who held senior roles in the Department of Education in both Republican and Democratic administrations, is no fan of DeVos. In an open letter to her former boss, Senator Lamar Alexander, who now chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, she said DeVos would be "the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education."

She writes, "Now you are in a position of selecting a new Secretary of Education. I watched the hearings, and it was evident to all but the most extreme partisans that Ms. DeVos is unqualified, unprepared, and unfit for the responsibility of running this important agency.....Her lack of experience leaves her ill-equipped to address the needs of the vast majority of American schools....At least 85 percent of American school children attend public schools. She has no ideas about how to improve public schools. Her only idea is that students should enroll in non-public schools."

She also cites statistics showing that DeVos's influence on Michigan schools is hardly a model for our nation. After embracing her approach to school choice, Michigan has gone from 28th to 41st in fourth-grade reading and dropped from 27th to 42nd in fourth-grade math. Eighty percent of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit companies, who make more than $1 billion a year, operate without accountability or transparency, and do not show better results than public schools.

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law