Everybody acknowledges that public education across the United States is in dire straits. But establishment politicians continue to overlook the particularly deep crisis in special education, on which over 6.5 million students depend.
The extent to which students with disabilities remain invisible to policy makers was most glaringly evident in the January 2017 confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. When questioned about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the landmark federal law that over forty years ago set out to protect students with disabilities, DeVos erroneously claimed that states could decide for themselves to comply with the law. Only after Senator Maggie Hassan informed her that the IDEA is in fact a federal law did DeVos concede that “I may have confused it.”
Unfortunately, DeVos is not the only leader to overlook the importance of special education, despite the fact that it serves 14 percent of students in this country. The IDEA, the original iteration of which was passed in 1975, mandated the federal government to cover 40 percent of the cost of educating children with disabilities. Yet as a comprehensive 2018 report from the National Council on Disability explained, the federal government is currently paying less than half of its originally promised per-pupil funding. As Bernie Sanders pointed out when sponsoring a 2008 amendment to increase the special education budget by $10 billion, “kids with special ed needs are not getting the attention they deserve.”
Though the federal government continues to plead poverty when it comes to students with disabilities, it somehow manages to find over $600 billion dollars yearly for the Department of Defense. This systematic underfunding of the IDEA punishes precisely those students in our society who need the most help — as well as those educators who aspire to teach them.
Class sizes have mushroomed, often leading schools to force together students with widely different types of disabilities, ranging from emotional and behavioral disturbances, to acute learning or physical disabilities. And while schools in richer and whiter districts are sometimes able to cobble together funds for students with disabilities by raising local property taxes, working-class public schools, disproportionately educating black and brown students, are abandoned to their fate.
Those who work in special education increasingly fail to receive the basic material and professional support that they need. “We used to have money for updated materials and professional development,” notes Vicki Zasadny, a special education teacher in Western Wyandotte County, Kansas. “Now we pretty much have money for paper and pencils.” Unsurprisingly, the number of special education teachers, already low to begin with, has dropped by more than 17 percent nationwide over the last decade.
To make matters worse, the underfunding of special education has been further exacerbated by billionaire-backed privatization efforts. As a 2019 study by United Teachers Los Angeles demonstrates, the percentage of students with disabilities in public schools has risen because of the spread of charter schools, which tend to under-enroll students with disabilities. In Oakland, for example, charters enrolled students with disabilities at about half the public school rate. All in all, these disparities cost the districts of Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego upwards of $97.19 million in funding.
To address these educational injustices, Bernie Sanders introduced a new Disability Rights platform last week that together with his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education offers a path to provide all students with a high quality education, regardless of their background or zip code.
Released last spring, Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall Plan calls for aggressively reinvesting in public schools, reversing racial segregation, and eliminating high-stakes testing. Its provisions also include tripling Title I funding for schools with students from low-income families, substantially raising teacher pay, universal school lunches, and modernizing and greening schools.
Because underfunding the IDEA has caused enormous suffering and lack of opportunity for millions of students with disabilities, the plan also includes increased federal funding for educating students with disabilities. Sanders wants to ensure that the federal government provides at least 50 percent of the funding for students with disabilities, beyond the original 40 percent commitment set out in 1975. His new Disability Rights plan supplements that funding by providing schools with 100 percent of the additional costs of educating students with disabilities in general education classrooms, above the average per pupil price-tag.
Sanders’s plan to set a baseline starting annual salary of $60,000 for all teachers would especially help those who work in special education, whose average starting salary is roughly $42,000. That increase, along with grant programs to cover out-of-pocket expenses and ongoing professional development, would go a long way in addressing the profound shortage of special needs teachers nationwide, which in many parts of the country has reached crisis levels.
Sanders has not hesitated to call out the hedge-funders and billionaire “philanthropists” trying to privatize our public school system. Following the NAACP’s lead, he supports placing a moratorium on all charter school expansion until they can be made publicly accountable, and he wants to ban for-profit charters altogether.
He also opposes high-stakes testing, which is particularly important for special needs students and teachers. Sanders has been vocal about teachers being treated with the professional respect to determine their own evaluation methods based on their expertise and knowledge of their students’ learning styles and needs.
Some students with disabilities suffer immeasurably from the stresses of being forced to take tests that are not appropriate for their aptitude level. In a recent op-ed in USA Today, Sanders recalled a discussion he had with a teacher in South Carolina who had been forced to administer a standardized test to a child with a severe disability. The teacher described the experience to him as “torture.”
Sanders often points out that none of these changes can be achieved without a mass movement that is willing to take on the political establishment and big-money interests. The educator strikes that have spread from West Virginia to Los Angeles, Chicago, Little Rock, and beyond show exactly what this kind of bottom-up struggle can look like — and what working-class people can achieve against seemingly insurmountable odds.
When elected to the White House, Bernie Sanders will fight alongside educators in the Red for Ed movement to ensure that every student in this country receives an excellent public education. Turning this vision into a reality means putting the needs of students with disabilities, and the educators that serve them, at the center of the struggle for education justice. We cannot afford to wait any longer.