Many of us are keeping a watchful eye on the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and the direction she will take public education. Her role as President Trump’s pick for the position was hotly contested by many within the education community, because she has no experience in public education, no significant administrative or organizational experience, and is a vocal advocate for voucher programs and charter schools as education reform.
Education vouchers allow families to send their kids to schools beyond their neighborhoods – including to private and religious schools. Money for the vouchers comes from funds that would’ve otherwise been used to educate the child in public school. Currently, only 14 states offer traditional voucher education programs. Proponents of vouchers say they encourage healthy competition among neighboring public schools and between public and private schools, forcing them to improve in order to maintain enrollment and thus, funding. Opponents argue that education is not a business, and viewing kids’ ability to learn as a commodity is fundamentally flawed. Additionally, where voucher schools can place restrictions on admission, effectively allowing them to “hand pick” whom to educate, public schools are charged with educating all students, and they must adhere to government standards, many of which exist to protect the rights of children with special needs.
The push for nationwide voucher programs has already started. On Jan. 23, congressman Steve King (R-IA) introduced H.R. 610, the "Choices in Education Act 2017." This bill seeks to establish a voucher program that allows public funds to be used for private schools or home-schooling. States would be issued block grant funds, and given wide discretion over how the funds are spent. This means public education could potentially be EVEN LESS FUNDED than it already is, and private schools could be funded with public money.
Bills like H.R. 610 are potentially devastating to both public education in general and, specifically, for children with disabilities because, currently, private schools are not required to follow the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is the federal legislation that ensures children with disabilities have access to a free, appropriate public education that is tailored to their specific needs. It's why your family started receiving early intervention services upon learning your infant or toddler was DHH. It's why IEPs are required to ensure a DHH child's needs are appropriately met in the classroom. It's why educators must look for the Least Restrictive Environment when creating a plan to support a DHH child, and why the IEP team must consider special factors in the placement of DHH students, including the child’s language and opportunities for direct communication with peers. Overall, the goal of IDEA is to provide students with disabilities the same opportunity for education as students without disabilities.
As Secretary DeVos settles into her new role, we must all remain vigilant and be ready to raise our collective voices in support of public education and the importance of safeguarding access to quality public education for students with disabilities. At DEAF Project, we will try to keep families informed of new developments via our Facebook page and this blog. In the meantime, ONE OF THE BEST THINGS YOU CAN DO is stay in contact with your representatives. They need to hear constituents' personal stories of what it's like navigating an already under-funded public education system. Has your child's school tried to deny access (or successfully denied access) to a supportive service, claiming they didn't have the resources? Tell your representative!
As a parent, YOU HAVE THE POWER to help make a difference. Sharing your stories not only helps strengthen representatives' commitment to the cause, but also provides them with compelling, "real world" stories to share as they debate issues with colleagues "across the isle" in Washington DC.
We challenge each of you to set aside 20 minutes to gather your thoughts and make a phone call. It can be as simple as, "My name is ______, and I'm the parent of a child who is Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing. I'm concerned about the future of public education and my child's ability to get the services s/he needs. I'm asking Senator Harris (or Senator Feinstein) to do everything she can to help protect children like mine by opposing H.R. 610." You'll likely be asked for your zip code, thanked for sharing your thoughts and that's that! If you'd like to share a more detailed story, you can send an email or letter. You'll find contact info below. (Note: At a recent advocacy training, we learned representatives view each phone call as 3-5 votes, each “snail mail” letter as 10 votes, and each office visit as 100 votes. Emailed “form letters” are not very persuasive. Basically, the more effort a constituent invests in making contact, the more seriously the contact is taken.)
THANK YOU in advance for doing your part to help protect special education!
- Rachel Friedman Narr
Coordinator, DEAF Project
Professor of Special/Deaf Education
California State University, Northridge