Sarah Palin gave a remarkable policy address last Friday, relatively little noted by a mainstream media more interested in giving in-depth coverage to such pressing public-policy issues as the cost of her wardrobe and the possible ramifications of the latest Saturday Night Live skit. One might think that given all of the caterwauling about Gov. Palin’s lack of policy substance on the campaign trail and in interviews, a policy speech on an issue she has repeatedly stated would be at the top of her agenda as vice president — a plan to end the neglect of children with special needs and their families — would garner some serious attention.
Palin, of course, has a son with Down Syndrome, Trig, and her sister has a 13-year-old son with autism. This personal experience gave her speech a special poignancy. She noted her fear when she learned Trig would have Down Syndrome, and then spoke movingly of how she realized what a gift Trig is: “What’s been confirmed in me is every child has something to contribute to the world, if we give them that chance. You know that there are the world’s standards of perfection, and then there are God’s, and these are the final measure. Every child is beautiful before God, and dear to Him for their own sake.”
In her remarks, Gov. Palin outlined a three-fold agenda for children with special needs: “more choices for parents, fully funding IDEA [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], and efforts to reform and refocus.” For many years, advocates for children with special needs have pointed to unmet promises of federal funding for IDEA, which requires state and local public-school systems to make full provision for children with special needs. Increased funding should be coupled with reform that tightens the program’s focus on the kids with the most pressing needs. But the federal government should indeed make good on its promises. As Palin noted in her speech, “the truest measure of any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable.”
But it’s more than a question of funding. “The law requires our public schools to serve children with special needs,” Palin said, “but often the results fall far short of the service they need.” While the public schools are failing children with special needs in a particularly egregious way, there is little question that they are failing all of our children in some measure. Conservatives have long advocated a greater degree of parental choice in education, either through vouchers or tuition tax credits, and nothing presents a better opportunity for moving that stalled project forward than an educational choice initiative aimed at the parents of children with special needs. Here is a population that typically gets the short end of the stick in pitched battles over the use of public-school funds.
Even with full funding of IDEA, it is unlikely that the public-education establishment would use those funds in a way that fulfills the federal mandate or that serve the interests of these children. Witness the District of Columbia, which spends more per public-school student than any other school system in the country. In terms of academic outcome, school discipline, and almost every other conceivable measure, the D.C. schools are a notorious disaster, and for children with special needs they are an absolute scandal. The idea that throwing more federal dollars into this sinkhole is a solution of some sort is laughable.
This is where Sarah Palin’s proposal comes in: to “put the educational choices for special needs children in the right hands — their parents’.” Gov. Palin suggests that “federal funding for every special needs child should follow that child,” and vows that a McCain/Palin administration would direct the Department of Education to make federal funds “fully portable.” In other words, she is proposing a voucher program for children with special needs, which can be used to send these children to the school of their parents’ choice, “public or private.” This should be a no-brainer: Since the public schools have not been able to fulfill their mandate to make accommodations for children with special needs for over three decades, it is vain to believe that they will do so simply with a little more money.
Palin advocated other reforms, including using existing programs and community centers to get more information to parents earlier, when their children are infants and toddlers. Her speech should represent another step toward our society to meeting what Palin rightly called its truest measure. Too bad the media hardly noticed.