An appropriate public education is one of the most fundamental civil rights our country guarantees our children. The lifelong consequences of educational neglect in childhood are significant and frequently irreversible.
Yet every day, in schools across Massachusetts, students with disabilities are deprived of their educational rights. Noncompliance with special education law is rampant in our state’s educational system. Between July 1, 2005 and June 30, 2006, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MDESE) documented 1,125 such cases of noncompliance statewide[i]. During its regular monitoring activities the U.S. Department of Education has repeatedly cited Massachusetts for its failure to correct serious deficiencies in its implementation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act[ii].
The human consequences are tragic. 80-90% of Massachusetts students with disabilities have no cognitive impairment and are capable of achieving at a rate commensurate with their non-disabled peers[iii], yet the achievement gap between these two groups is enormous and is getting worse[iv]. Frustrated by failure, nearly 6% of Massachusetts students with disabilities become high school drop-outs, compared to 3.5% of their non-disabled peers[v].
Many parents are left emotionally and financially bankrupt by the never ending battle to get their child’s most basic educational needs met[vi].
The federal government has never protected the educational rights of schoolchildren with disabilities. According to the National Council on Disability (Back to School on Civil Rights, January 2000), “Federal efforts to enforce the law over several Administrations have been inconsistent, ineffective and lacking any real teeth. Lack of accountability, poor enforcement, and systemic barriers have robbed too many students of their educational rights and opportunities[vii]."
Massachusetts has turned its back on these children by refusing to put an end to the violations of students’ special education rights occurring daily in our public schools[viii].
This is, ultimately, a matter of civil rights. The plight of Massachusetts students with disabilities is no different than that of other disenfranchised groups whose civil rights were systemically denied because of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. History tells us that inequitable treatment of marginalized groups will persist until the oppressed people themselves rise up to demand change. SPEDWatch is organizing just such an uprising. We hope to secure the educational rights of Massachusetts schoolchildren with disabilities through reasoned and respectful dialogue. But if that should fail, we are prepared to engage in acts of nonviolent direct action until students with disabilities receive the education to which they are legally entitled.
We look at the children, and know we have no other choice.
[ii] Sources of information for this statement include:
A. 1994 Review of the Massachusetts Department of Education's Implementation of Part B of the Individuals with Disabilitie Education Act, May 1995. Office of Special Education Programs (available from SPEDWatch).
B. Letter to Robert V. Antonucci, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education, September 22, 1997. Office of Special Education Programs (available from SPEDWatch).
C. Massachusetts Monitoring Report, June 2000. http://www.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/monitor/ma-final-report.pdf
D. Letter to David P. Driscoll, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education, October 29, 2003. Office of Special Education Programs. http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/osep/102903.html
E. Letter to David P. Driscoll, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education. November 19, 2004. Office of Special Education Programs. http://www.ed.gov/fund/data/report/idea/partbapr/baprltr03-ma.pdf
F. Letter to David P. Driscoll, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education. September 12, 2005. Office of Special Education Programs. http://www.ed.gov/fund/data/report/idea/partbapr/baprltr05-ma.pdf
G. Letter to David P. Driscoll, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education, March 28, 2006. Office of Special Education Programs. http://www.ed.gov/fund/data/report/idea/partbspap/2006/ma-bsppltr06.pdf
H. Letter to David P. Driscoll, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education, June 15, 2007 Office of Special Education Programs http://www.ed.gov/fund/data/report/idea/partbspap/2007/ma-aprltr-2007b.pdf
[vii] The National Council on Disability (NCD) is an independent federal agency making recommendations to the President and Congress to enhance the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities and their families. NCD is composed of 15 members appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. NCD's overall purpose is to promote policies, programs, practices, and procedures that guarantee equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities; and to empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, inclusion and integration into all aspects of society. Read the entire report at http://www.ncd.gov/newsroom/publications/2000/backtoschool_1.htm