- The needs of students with disabilities have been unmet for decades.
- Students of color are disproportionately affected.
- The coalition filed a class petition calling on the government to fulfill its promises to special education students.
Martha Siravo, whose eight-year-old daughter, Jasmine, has an Individualized Education Plan with the Madison, WI, Metropolitan School District for disabilities due to cerebral palsy and epilepsy, says the pandemic “brought into sharp relief the ways in which students of color with disabilities have been profoundly and disproportionately negatively impacted by the decades’ long failure of the federal government to fulfill its promises.”
Siravo is part of the Fulfill the Promise Coalition a diverse partnership of parents, educators and unions, including the National Education Association (NEA), calling for federal pandemic recovery funds to alleviate the devastating effects of the pandemic on students with disabilities and remedy the nearly 50-year failure to support them adequately. On March 23rd, 2021, several parents and unions in the coalition filed a class petition for guidance documents calling on the government to fulfill its promises to special education students. The petition focuses on the unmet needs of students of color with disabilities.
“As a mother of an African American student, I've seen first-hand how students like my son have been profoundly and disproportionately negatively impacted by the decades-long failure of congress to fulfill its promise,” says Tiffany Gardner, whose 12-year-old son Isaiah was born with severe lung and brain limitations and has an IEP with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Gardner notes that along with a chronic lack of adequate support, even after the advocacy of his educators, no services have been provided for Isaiah apart from occupational therapy since the pandemic began, even though he has many other needs.
Melina Espiritu Azocar is another mother of a student with disabilities in San Antonio, Texas. “When the pandemic struck, policymakers turned their back on us. As a parent, I will not let our children be forgotten.”
Pandemic Highlights the Broken Promise
When it was passed in 1975, IDEA promised federal funds to pay for 40 percent of the excess costs to identify, assess and support students with disabilities, but critics charge it has only provided about 13 percent annually.
“For nearly 50 years, our nation has failed to live up to the promises we made to honor the civil rights of students with disabilities,” says NEA President Becky Pringle. “The pandemic has shone a light on the ways we fall short in providing opportunity to these students and their families, especially students of color. The moment has never been more urgent.”
The “petition for guidance” gives the federal government 90 days to respond to the request for guidance on how school districts should support students with disabilities including by way of providing critical additional supports with some of the $125.7 billion in pandemic relief being provided K-12 education.
It specifically asks for guidance as to how districts should address a huge backlog evaluations and provide even more critical supportive services with the necessary COVID-19 health and safety protocols in place. It also requests additional government “oversight capacity to monitor shortcomings and prevent further systematic problems” in special education services.
Pringle says schools must be encouraged now to prioritize meeting the needs of these students so that – “rather than further entrenching these longstanding inequities, we begin to remedy them”.
“We must fulfill the promise of IDEA by fully funding the federal government’s share of free and appropriate education services and providing federal funding to assess and meet Section 504 needs,” she said. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides support for students with disabilities who may not necessarily require specialized instruction through IDEA and typically receive a 504 plan for in-class support.
Members of the NEA IDEA Cadre, a highly experienced and diversified group of educators, are poised to lend their voices to work in collaboration with local and state affiliates as well as local, state, and national partners to ensure that the longstanding inequities that students with disabilities have faced are rectified.
Help for Educators Who Support Special Needs Students
Gloria Martinez, a 20-year special and general education teacher and vice president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, one of the unions signing onto the petition, says she hopes the petition and its demands pay off for educators each day trying to support these students.
“I want to let my fellow educators across America know that the promise made to districts to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at 40 percent is no longer your burden to carry. Today we call on Congress and President Biden to make good on IDEA and fulfill the promise to our students with disabilities. Everyone wins when adults keep their promises to our students.”
The other petitioners include parents of students with disabilities, educators and educator unions in Boston, Austin, Madison, Milwaukee and Oakland.
The petition says that the pandemic rescue funding should require states and school districts to begin to tackle the “multiple and overlapping problems that historical underfunding and racial bias have caused with the correct identification and support of students with special education needs and disabilities”.
Guidance from the Department (of Education) can play a pivotal role in ensuring this opportunity is not squandered,” it says. “The Department should immediately issue guidance informing states and school districts of their obligation to spend this money equitably and in ways that tackle discrimination and unequal outcomes resulting from both the pandemic and pre-pandemic causes.”
It specifically asks:
- That all children with disabilities are provided a free and appropriate public education with support and services designed to meet their unique needs
- That the federal government cover 40% of the additional cost required to provide those necessary services under the IDEA and provide federal funding to provide 504 services to students.
- That the federal government protect the civil rights of students with disabilities to have their needs met in a comparable way as non-disabled students
Learn more about the Fulfill the Promise coalition and the class petition at FulfillThePromise.net.