Letters to California Senators on two cabinet appointments

These letters were sent to California Senators on the two most concerning cabinet nominations for the Down Syndrome community.

 

devos_letter

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The Honorable Dianne Feinstein The Honorable Kamala Harris
United States Senate United States Senate
Washington DC 20510 Washington DC 20510
January 2, 2017
Dear Senators Feinstein and Harris,
The California Down Syndrome Advocacy Coalition (CDAC) would like to share with you our concerns about President-elect Trump’s proposed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. CDAC is a partnership of parents and active Down syndrome organizations across the state of California who advocate on behalf of people with Down syndrome and their families.
One of our main goals is to promote meaningful access to educational opportunities for people with Down syndrome. Thanks to the hard work of many passionate advocates—parents, educators, legislators, and other stakeholders—federal law now protects vulnerable students such as those with Down syndrome by ensuring that they have the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), which is presumed to be a general education setting with appropriate supports. The reality is that parents of students with Down syndrome often have to fight long and hard to secure their child’s rightful place in an inclusive education setting, but the law is on their side. At least, it is if the family is looking at public school.
Therein lies our greatest concern with President-elect Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as the potential Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos is well known for supporting a voucher-based, privatized, for-profit education system. For vulnerable student populations, such as those we at CDAC support, this could be catastrophic. Private and for-profit schools have the right to set academic admissions criteria that many students with disabilities cannot meet, and these schools are not required to provide all the accommodations that students with disabilities may require to be successful. So where would this leave our children with Down syndrome? Very likely right back where we started decades ago, being educated in a setting that does not provide them with the best opportunity to earn an education that prepares them for their adult life.
Some have speculated that if voucher-based education is adopted, public schools would remain open (but woefully underfunded, thanks to funds being diverted to vouchers) solely for students with disabilities and those with very low incomes. Others have speculated that students with disabilities would end up in a small number of segregated private schools that accept them.
Neither solution is a positive one in any way for these students. In fact, they are both taking several giant steps backward, erasing all the progress we’ve made over this last few decades.
These potential changes would impact a significant population of our state’s students: Of the roughly 5.7 million students enrolled in California’s public schools, 10.5 percent of them have a  disability and fall under the umbrella of students protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That’s more than 600,000 California students who could be negatively impacted by a voucher-based educational system.
We understand that there are student with disabilities whose learning needs are not met in the students’ home schools and that education options are important; however, under no circumstances should a private school voucher impact the funding of public schools. All students in the United States have the constitutional right to equal public education opportunities.
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Additionally, IDEA ensures a free and appropriate public education, and the purpose of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education and to close achievement gaps that currently exist.
Our nation’s education secretary should ensure all students have access to a high-quality public education. And while some students with disabilities have had successful experiences in private and charter schools, both the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and the United States Government Accountability Office have done studies that expose reason for concern regarding a national public policy based on vouchers and charters. (I would be happy to provide you with links to those reports if you’re interested in the specifics—the reports are quite comprehensive.)
And so, we respectfully request that you do not support Ms. DeVos as our future Secretary of Education. Or at the very least, we request that you strongly question how Ms. DeVos on how she would work to protect the rights of students with disabilities in a voucher-based system that could, in theory, include private schools, charter schools, and public schools. Would all of those voucher-based schools be required to uphold FAPE and LRE for all students? Would they be required to uphold the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) standards that are currently being refined and should be implemented by next year? Would all of those schools receive proper training on the benefits of inclusion and be staffed with educators who are qualified to teach diverse student populations?
It is our belief that a voucher-based system is not a positive change for students with
disabilities—but if it does come to pass, we strongly suggest that the Secretary of Education be prepared to handle all of the issues that will come up pertaining to students with disabilities. We need to ensure that we continue to move forward for our vulnerable student populations, not take a step backward by completely dismantling our public education system.
We ask that you support a candidate who is interested in expanding access to educational
opportunities for all our student populations, not simply those that fit in the “typically
developing” box. We ask that you support a candidate who is committed to implementing ESSA while ensuring that ESSA includes safety measures that will protect vulnerable student populations, such as those with disabilities. We ask that you support a candidate who is committed to continuing to improve our public education system, which is not without flaws but which is, in general, a positive system that can ultimately support all student populations.
With respect and thanks,
Kelly Kulzer-Reyes and Cathleen Small, co-chairs of the California Down Syndrome Advocacy Coalition

 

sessions_letter

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The Honorable Dianne Feinstein The Honorable Kamala Harris
United States Senate United States Senate
Washington DC 20510 Washington DC 20510
January 2, 2017
Dear Senators Feinstein and Harris,
The California Down Syndrome Advocacy Coalition (CDAC) would like to share with you
our concerns about President-elect Trump’s proposed Attorney General, Senator Jeff
Sessions. CDAC is a partnership of parents and active Down syndrome organizations across the state of California who advocate on behalf of people with Down syndrome and their families.
One of our main goals is to promote meaningful access to educational opportunities for
people with Down syndrome. Thanks to the hard work of many passionate advocates—
parents, educators, legislators, and other stakeholders—the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA) protects vulnerable students such as those with Down syndrome by
ensuring that they have the right to a free and appropriate public education in the least
restrictive environment, which is presumed to be a general education setting with
appropriate supports. Based on remarks Sessions made on the Senate floor in 2000, we are
concerned that as Attorney General, Senator Sessions might not support IDEA in the way
that Congress intended it.
In his May 18, 2000, speech, Sessions indicated support for children who “have a hearing
loss, or a sight loss, or if they have difficulty moving around, in a wheelchair, or whatever”
being accommodated in a mainstream classroom. However, he went on to share numerous
examples of students with emotional or behavioral challenges, who he claimed could not be disciplined because they were “special ed.” Sessions expressed at that time his feeling that IDEA made the jobs of teachers and administrators difficult by providing loopholes by
which students with IEPs could not be disciplined in the same way as students without
IEPs—in fact, he called it the “single most irritating problem for teachers throughout
America today.”
While we certainly understand the need for teachers and administrators to be able to
maintain an effective teaching environment, we are concerned that Sessions may be
painting with a very broad brush and unnecessarily discounting an incredibly important
piece of disability law. A great many students with IEPs do not have significant emotional
or behavioral challenges—no more so than any typically developing child. And for all
students with disabilities, it is clearly stated in the most recent text of IDEA that Congress
found “almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of
children with disabilities can be made more effective by…having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular
classroom, to the maximum extent possible…[and] providing…aides and supports in the
regular classroom, to such children, whenever appropriate…[and] providing incentives
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for…positive behavioral interventions and supports…to address the learning and
behavioral needs of such children.”
Further, the text of IDEA goes on to say that if a child’s behavior is determined not to be a
manifestation of that child’s disability, “the relevant disciplinary procedures applicable to
children without disabilities may be applied to the child in the same manner and for the
same duration in which the procedures would be applied to children without disabilities.”
In cases in which the behavior is found to be a manifestation of the disability, IDEA
discusses how the student’s educational team can best address the concerns and what
steps may be taken to remedy the problem.
In short, Sessions’ argument appears to have taken a relatively small subset of students—
those with disabilities who also happen to have significant behavior challenges—and used
that population segment to argue against a law that actually does account for such
circumstances and, perhaps even more importantly, protects the rights of approximately
6.5 million students in America’s public schools—about 13 percent of all public school
students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Sessions’ remarks were made more than a decade ago, and we certainly recognize that his
views on education may have evolved over the years. But we humbly ask that you please
consider his historical views on students with disabilities when deciding whether to
confirm his appointment as Attorney General. Please ask Senator Sessions about his
current views on IDEA and other disability-related legislation. Ask him if he’s aware of the
vast body of research indicating the success of IDEA since its inception in 1975. Ask him
how he plans to use his position as Attorney General to uphold the rights of vulnerable
student populations served under our nation’s federal disability laws.
We have made so much progress in disability law over the past decades, and none of us
wants to see students’ disability rights lessened or stripped away under an Attorney
General for whom they are not a priority.
With respect and thanks,
Kelly Kulzer-Reyes and Cathleen Small, co-chairs of the California Down Syndrome
Advocacy Coalition