Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gov. Palin says she'll give disabled students choices in schooling

From The New York Times Oct. 25:

ST. LOUIS — In her first policy speech of the presidential campaign, Gov. Sarah Palin vowed Friday that a McCain administration would allow all special-needs students the choice of attending private schools at public expense, a controversial and potentially costly proposal likely to be welcomed by many parents and bitterly opposed by many school districts.

Ms. Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president, also promised that she and Senator John McCain would finally provide public schools the federal money that was promised when the law covering students with special needs was passed in 1975. Her pledge was intended to address the top concern of many school districts, and is one that has been made by many other politicians but never fulfilled.

The policy speech was a departure for Ms. Palin, whose métier is the kind of foot-stomping pep rally she headlined the night before, at a stop north of Pittsburgh, where she recalled an anecdote about “Joe the quarterback” — as in Namath, a local native — to “guarantee” that she and Mr. McCain would come from behind to win.

In a hotel meeting room before about 150 parents and children with special needs, Ms. Palin was more subdued, and departed slightly from her prepared remarks to speak of her fears when she learned that the baby she was carrying earlier this year would have Down syndrome.

Later, she met for three hours here with an investigator from Alaska to give depositions as part of a second inquiry into whether she abused the powers of her office by firing the state’s public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan. He says he lost his job because he would not bend to pressure to dismiss Ms. Palin’s former brother-in-law, Trooper Mike Wooten.

Ms. Palin’s husband, Todd, was also deposed here, said Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the McCain-Palin campaign.

Ms. Palin’s events have attracted many parents of special-needs children who see her as a champion of their cause. And many school districts routinely rank financing for special education and the need for so-called full funding as their No. 1 concern.

The federal special-education law required districts to provide a “free, appropriate public education” to all students with disabilities, who at the time the law was enacted were often declared “ineducable” or were essentially warehoused. The federal government was eventually to pay 40 percent of the cost, but its share hovered in the single digits for years and is now at about 17 percent, with the bulk assumed by state and local governments.

The costs of special education have increased sharply as learning disabilities have been diagnosed among more students and as medical technology has allowed children who once would not have survived to attend school.

It is not uncommon for those costs to account for half a school district’s budget, and many districts complain that they have to cut programs and increase class sizes for regular education programs to keep up.

The proposal to provide school choice for special-needs students is likely to meet with fierce resistance from school districts and teachers unions, as well as those who may see it as the first step to allowing all parents to use public money to attend private or parochial schools.

Case law on special education has generally said that parents of students with special needs must allow the public school to try to educate those students; if the school or a state administrator decides that the education is not appropriate, the public school must pay for private schools. About seven million students receive special-education services nationwide, with about 70,000 attending private schools.

Ms. Palin said a McCain administration would allow states to develop plans to allow school choice to disabled students using state money, with federal special-education financing to follow.

“The parents of children with special needs ask themselves every day if they’re doing enough, and if they’re doing right by their sons and daughters,” she said. “And when our public school system fails to render help and equal opportunity and even parents are prevented, sometimes, from seeking that help and those choices elsewhere, that to me is unacceptable.”

The campaign has promised a federal spending freeze on all but essential programs if Mr. McCain becomes president, but said Friday that the special-needs program would be exempt from that.

Still, the budget hurdles are huge. It is hard to predict how many students would choose to attend private schools and how much that would cost.

Ms. Palin said the costs could be covered by striking earmarks “for political pet projects” from the federal budget, but Mr. McCain has already pledged that money for other goals.