Last Friday Sen. John McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin outlined the McCain-Palin Commitment To Children With Special Needs, a three-part initiative to improve educational systems for students with learning disabilities.
31 percent of students with learning disabilities fail to complete high school, and 43 percent of the ones who do finish do not enjoy the respect of having earned regular diploma according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).
Gov. Palin’s youngest son, Trig, has down syndrome, which has made the issue of special needs children very personal for the vice presidential candidate, and has won the McCain campaign some enthusiastic support from parents with special needs children.
However, McCain and Palin are playing catch up with this plan, as their opponent, Sen. Obama, has long had his Plan to Empower Americans with Disabilities, which has been well received.
Using Florida’s McKay scholarship as a model, the McCain-Palin plan would allow states to develop programs that allow parents to choose public or private schools, with federal funding following the child. The McKay scholarship made it possible for 17,300 students with special needs in Florida to switch from their local public schools and instead attend a participating private school during the 2005-2006 school year.
The plan would also expand support for children below school age, up to 3 years old, as well as improve vocational training for high schoolers and adults.
A key part of he plan is to fully fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA became law in 1975 under President Gerald Ford, and while it has been greatly improved and strengthened since its inception, it has lacked full funding.
The McCain camp says that full federal funding Of IDEA is estimated at $26 billion annually, and that the current funding is $10.9 billion. The McCain-Palin plan would increase funding by $3 billion annually in order to reach the full funding in five years will cost an additional $45 billion over five years. Full funding for IDEA means the federal government would pay 40 percent of the costs of the K-12 special education program.
Sen. Barack Obama similarly supports funding IDEA. His Plan to Empower Americans with Disabilities states, "Barack Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…Fully funding IDEA will provide students with disabilities the public education they have a right to, and school districts will be able to provide services without cutting into their general education budgets. In addition to fully funding IDEA."
The McCain-Palin ticket had previously been criticized from some members of the special needs community for not having enough policy statements regarding special education.
Paul K. Longmore, professor of history and director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University wrote a sharp criticism on Oct. 3, in the Huffington Post.
“The McCain-Palin campaign website has a single page on 'Americans with Disabilities for McCain,' but it says nothing about policy positions [...] In contrast, Barack Obama and Joe Biden have said little on the campaign trail about disability issues but their campaign website provides detailed policy proposals in a comprehensive "Plan to Empower Americans with Disabilities," stated Dr. Longmore.
Dr. Longmore also argued that too often the focus of the candidates and the media is just on children regarding this issue, citing that 90 percent of the 54 million Americans with disabilities are adults. He even goes a step further to draw attention to the fact that most of those 54 million are registered voters who are often overlooked in their importance.
Most polls as of last week showed Sen. Obama with a strong lead over McCain when it comes to the issues of education and healthcare, both of which are at the heart of the issue of special needs, and will give him an edge with most voters who have those issues as their top concern.
Gov. Palin has increased funding in her state of Alaska for special education and family support initiatives, and has been lauded for her commitment to the issue.
Both candidates have now put forth strong plans for how to improve education and services for Americans with disabilities, and this new plan from McCain and Palin will play favorably in an area where the Republican ticket has been underperforming.