Bush plan leaves some children behind

This week the Senate passed the misnamed No Child Left Behind Act, which gives the federal government an unprecedented say in the standards public school children must meet. Yet it doesn’t provide funding to meet those goals. The main outrage in this bill is the lack of funding for special education.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) summed up the problem and who is responsible: “The really cynical part of all this is that while House Republicans were busy cutting Minnesota’s special education funds, they were passing billions of dollars in wild tax cuts, including legislation to let giant corporations pay nothing – zero– in federal taxes.”

In fact, the education plan is the exact opposite of Bush’s corporate bailouts, where the federal government gives billions of tax dollars to corporations with no standards, nor accountability for its spending.

The GOP is sending a message to parents: if your child has special needs, don’t come looking to the public school system for his or her education.

Bush and his Congressional attack dogs are also sending a message to the public school community: we expect you to do better but we are not going to give you the resources. No, they say, instead we will pit special needs children against general education children and let it be fought out on the local level.

The GOP-dominated conference committee did not include in the final version of the Act a bipartisan Senate amendment that required funding for 40 percent of special education costs.

Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, criticized the conferees in a Dec. 11 news release when he said they rejected the will of the majority in Congress when they refused to fully fund special education. “This action is simply irresponsible and misses the opportunity to truly leave no child behind,” Chase said.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 authorized the federal government to pay for up to 40 percent of a local district’s special education costs; present appropriations pay only 15 percent. As a result, local school districts are often faced with such decisions as whether to fund a speech-language teacher or fund a music program – both essential to a rounded education.

Because the Act will not fully fund special education, the financial burden is placed on local school districts at the same time it imposes significant new demands on students and schools.

However, Bush’s education bill comes at a time when states are running deficits. According to the National Governors’ Association, states now face a $35 billion shortfall in the wake of recession and the tax cuts for the rich passed earlier this year.

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) recently wrote that this will be the first education bill he votes against during his career in the Senate. He said it’s better to pass no bill than a bad bill. Jeffords, a longtime education advocate, wrote: “Special education has been an incredibly important program for millions of children. Graduation rates have increased, and the number of young adults with disabilities enrolling in college has more than tripled.”

And to underline how the Bush plan puts local districts between a rock and a hard place, Jeffords added, “But special education is very costly, and by not providing the federal funds we promised, we force states and local school districts to increase property taxes and shift funds from other programs.”

The conscious defunding of special education puts unbearable pressure on educators, parents and children, with some school districts directing their staff not to recommend children for special education evaluations and provide evaluations only when a parent requests it.

It took years of struggle to get this far in recognizing the rights of the disabled. And there is still a ways to go. This intentional underfunding of special education undermines all the gains from that important civil rights movement. Before passage of IDEA, it was nearly impossible for a disabled child to attend public school.

Since Sept. 11, the movement for equal and quality public education has taken a back seat to Bush’s war on terrorism. The important demands to reduce class sizes, pay teachers more, guarantee equal school funding for majority minority schools and full funding for special education, bilingual and other important programs have been buried in the rubble. It’s time for a public education supporters to dig it out. Clearly the right wing has already dug out and even dusted off its agenda.

The author can be reached at Talbano@pww.org