Thursday, February 23, 2017

Hey, what's the big IDEA?

I've been trying to write a blog post about this for some time, but I keep deleting and starting over.  The other night, something made these thoughts boil over onto Facebook:

I was just looking at my Representative's web pages, trying to figure out if he's going to do a town hall, and came across this statement: "Anything we can do to reduce the power and influence of the federal government will strengthen our economy and help us reclaim the American dream." Anything? No sir... things can be streamlined, made more efficient, more accountable, but there are limits. As your constituent who is the parent of a kid with special needs, I want a Department of Education that works. As someone who grew up in a rural area where dioxin was dumped into the river for 30 years and has a mother with Parkinsons AND as a Utahn who can see two Superfund sites from his back yard, but only on days when there's not too much pollution, I want an EPA that can do its job. I want a CDC that can handle epidemics and a FEMA that can help in emergencies. I want a DOJ that helps protect our civil rights. While we're at it, I'd like to know that our elections are fair and free from foreign influence AND that our president is not a Russian tool who's using his office to line his pockets. You're my representative, Congressman Chris Stewart, and if you're not advocating for my interests, I'd like to know why.

There's only so much you can say in a Facebook post, so here's the rest of the story.

Deliverance: Nominated for 3 Oscars!

There's currently a bill before congress to abolish the Department of Education, co-sponsored by Utah's own Jason Chaffetz.  Supposedly, this bill is mostly posturing, but it's a real poke in the eye.  It's a big guy in a track suit walking into my shop and saying, "Nice place you have'd be a shame if something happened to it."  It's running into a guy with a shotgun in the woods who tells me I have a pretty mouth.  It's not funny.  

I want to know what this congressional threat is supposed to mean for both my sons, but especially for my son who has autism.

It wasn't that long ago that people with autism were institutionalized as a matter of routine.  What was that like?  If you've got a strong stomach, you might want to see Geraldo Rivera's 1972 expose of Willowbrook, a state school in New York.  Here's a clip:

That's what it was like before a whole lot of people got the federal government involved.  I'm not suggesting it was like that everywhere, but it was like that somewhere.  I don't think if the federal government took its eyes off education, states would revert to a situation like that...not immediately anyway.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed.  Before that, only about 1 in 5 kids with a disability was allowed in public schools, and many of those that were allowed were "warehoused" - kept separate from the general classrooms.  I experienced this personally when I was in 3rd grade (or so) , which would have been 1973ish.  I did well on an IQ test and it was decided that I should have a chance to get education beyond the regular classroom.  Periodically, I left my class and went to the special ed building - a separate structure from the main building.  I was given a workbook and tried to focus on my self-guided studies while the special ed class swirled around me.  It was not a successful educational experiment.

In 1990, the EAHCA was expanded into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, co-sponsored by Utah's own Orrin Hatch (thank you, sir).  As difficult as the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process may be, it's a lot easier than starting off with a lawsuit to get your kid an education, which is what had to be done before.  Knowing that every kid has a right to a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE) in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE) is really, really important to parents of special needs kids.  Count your blessings if you've never needed to learn those acronyms.

It took a lot of work, from a lot of people, to get to the point where we are now.  It's not easy being a parent, and it's harder being a parent of a kid with special needs.  I'm in awe of those parents of kids with special needs back in the 60's and 70's who stood up for their children, filed lawsuits, pestered their congressmen, and got us EAHCA and IDEA.  They didn't even have Facebook to help organize. 
Who's wrong?  This lady!

The Department of Education hasn't been dissolved yet, but we do have Betsy Devos in charge of it.  In her confirmation hearing, she was asked if schools that receive federal funding should comply with the IDEA act and said, "I think that is a matter best left to the states."   

Meanwhile, we've got Jeff Sessions for Attorney General who called the IDEA act "the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today".

In my opinion, we should be increasing federal funding for IDEA to the 40% that it was originally intended.  How about pushing for that?

From their websites, a lot of Utah legislators are talking about choice and charter schools, just like Ms. Devos.  They seem to be in lockstep.  

I don't know much about charter schools, but some articles I've read say that although they have to accept kids with special needs, some charters will push them out over time to keep their success rate high.  

Here in Utah, we have a couple of charter programs just for kids with autism.  I know many parents with kids in them, and they feel lucky to have made it through the lottery to get in.  Lucky sounds right, since finding the right public school placement and fighting for services in an IEP meeting can be really hard - especially given our public school budget.  

If my kid made it through the lottery for one of these schools, I'd seriously consider it, but it would be a hard choice because we'd be missing out on mainstreaming and inclusion. 

I think that educating our kids - all of our kids - is one of the best investments we can make in our future.  Right now, it looks like there's a wrecking ball poised to smash the institution built to address that.  I'd really like to hear from my legislators about this. 

Rats!  I'm out of time, and I didn't even get to the EPA.  Maybe next time.

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