Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has sold herself to the public as the defender of school choice. This sounds like a great idea. Except that this won’t mean choice for all.
When asked about the Individuals with Disabilities Education act, IDEA, which offers disabled students support to succeed in public education she suggested it should be left up to the states to follow what is, as of now, a federal law. This law provides disabled students with anything from a personal aid to in using the restroom or a scribe to speed up test-taking. The goal of these accommodations is to give students with disabilities the same access to knowledge as their able-bodied counterparts.
Our secretary of education has suggested that providing these services puts an undo “burden” on some schools and so providing them should not be mandatory. She seems unaware however, that this is the opposite of her message of choice. As a disabled academic who is a product of the public education system, I can attest to all the doors that opened for me because of the accommodations my school had to offer and how those doors will slam shut for the students who come after me if the law doesn’t guarantee them the same.
I graduated in the top ten percent of my high school class. I took honors courses all along and was accepted to the first college I applied to. I have a college degree and secured a job writing professionally within six months of graduation. None of that would have been possible if I wasn’t given an aid to support my physical needs and the option to type my in-class papers and tests. However, this issue is bigger than just my story.
To take these regulations out of public education suggests that disabled students are not in fact equal members of their communities. To deny they are a part of the public is to violate the civil rights of a vulnerable population for the sake of convenience and budget cuts.
To demonstrate the wide spread danger American education faces without the IDEA, I sat down with educators to discuss their experiences and concerns.
Professor Lydia Fecteau of Stockton University explained what disabled students’ options were before federal regulations. “They gave me a choice” she told me. “Go to the school that could offer physical therapy but be left behind academically or go to a Christian school for better academics without therapy.”
These are the kind of “choices” families with disabled kids will be forced to make. She also made it very clear that even these options could be a privilege. “What about those who don’t have access to that? Who can’t afford it or don’t live near private school willing to support them? Then they have to move.” She went on to explain.
“Families which often struggle financially to get their child what they need have to pick up and move in hopes the next town will offer something better.”
These are not choices any parent should have to make. In fact, they are not choices at all.
The role of public school is to offer education for all children of a given community. To put children and their families in these lose-lose situations isolates them from their communities or forces them to leave them altogether. How can we call that school choice?
Professor Adalaine Holton who studies diversity in literature was quick to point out the alienation that is at the center of this policy. “We treat people like the other when we never see them. Having disabled students and educators in classrooms changes that.” How can we expect this to take place in the world or in a university classroom if even the education system sees us as other? Alienation dehumanizes us. Referring to her study of race Professor Holton went on to say “Look at Brown vs. The Board Of Education, we’ve already learned separate but equal doesn’t work. This is segregation.”
We think of civil rights as an issue of race. Civil rights are anything we can expect as members of a society.
“This is an issue of civil rights!” Holton passionately insisted. “Disabled voices are very important to the conversation of education but this is not something you have to earn with your academic ability.”
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This message of the danger that comes with separation was something all academics I spoke to shared. Peter E. Murphy, professor of literature and retired high-school English teacher, was very clear about the danger he saw with this policy. When asked what the landscape will look like if disabled folks are kept from contributing to the education conversation he answered “It will be quiet. People won’t know what’s missing at first. But then it will be those people why should we help them be more like us. Better just not to see them. There wasn’t a problem till they made one anyway.” When asked for an example he told the following story:
When I was teaching high-school someone pulled the fire alarm so we had to take the kids outside. It was cold maybe March, it was raining. After about a half an hour a girl in my class who was in a wheelchair started to shake. I went to an administrator who refused to help. Another half an hour went by and you could hear the chair rattling. Finally, I carried her and put her in my car to warm her up. Finally, I drove her home. By the time I got back nobody even noticed we were gone.
While I’d hope this is not how most administrations would handle such a moment, policies like the one being proposed make situations like this possible. Allowing the needs of disabled students to be optional and viewing them as a burden on the system at best paints them as lesser. At worst it makes them invisible. We do not value those our government will not protect.
Further more, with the limits now placed on teachers interacting intimately with a student like the one in the above story teachers would not even be allowed to take her home. The education and safety of vulnerable students should not be left up to which teachers are willing to risk their careers.
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We as citizens must expect better of those in charge of education than to package segregation in a new rapper and call it choice.
A choice with prerequisites is a privilege. The purpose of public education is to make education available to everyone regardless of privilege. It does not serve its purpose if it alienates, segregates and dehumanizes. DeVos would like us to believe that this is the cost of doing business.
What does it say about our country if we will let our disabled children pay the price?