By Amanda Litvinov / AP Photo by Andrew Harnik
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew sharp criticism last week for defending her proposal to eliminate federal funding for Special Olympics. Specifically, her budget zeroed out the Unified Champion Schools program, which creates opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities to play sports together at school.
No one knows the value of that program better than retired Arkansas educator Donna Morey. For 35 years, Morey taught physical education, including adaptive gym classes and the Special Olympics program. Today she is the chair of the Special Olympics of Arkansas board.
Unified Champion Schools “doesn’t just pay for sports events for special needs kids. It’s designed to get all of our athletes, with and without special needs, working together and learning from each other,” Morey said.
She has seen the program benefit all participants, helping them develop skills, sensitivity, and even lifetime friendships. A decade of research shows the program increases inclusion and reduces bullying and teasing of students with intellectual disabilities.
But as Morey and many other educators have said, the voices of those who spoke up to defend Special Olympics are desperately needed to advocate for the full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the main source of federal support for special needs students.
When Congress passed IDEA in 1975 to ensure that students with disabilities would have equal access to quality education, it promised the federal government would pay 40 percent of special education costs. The federal share of IDEA funding last year was just 14.6 percent, the lowest level since 2001.
Congress has never covered even half of its IDEA commitment. For decades, costs have shifted to the states, forcing them to choose between raising taxes and cutting critical services for all students. The underfunding of special education affects the entire school.
Morey saw the budget strain at her school in terms of staffing, classroom resources, and inadequate facilities.
“I worked with moderately to severely disabled students,” she said. “The variety of needs changed so much year to year. Some years you have students who use wheelchairs and need tube feedings.”
Morey, who served as president of the Arkansas Education Association from 2009-2013, says that while our overall understanding of intellectual disabilities has improved, schools have been left without the resources to respond quickly and effectively in every case.
Today, nearly 7 million students receive special education services.
Betsy DeVos’ 2020 budget proposal cuts the Department of Education by 10 percent, and asks for no increases to IDEA.
Some legislators are calling for change. Last week, the bipartisan IDEA Full Funding Act was introduced in both the Senate and the House. The bill would achieve full funding of the special education law by increasing the federal share over 10 years.
“The federal government must stop shortchanging our students and make good on its commitment to fully fund IDEA,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who has championed the issue in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) co-sponsored the bill. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) introduced companion legislation in the House.
According to a recent report by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, if IDEA were fully funded, every school could have an additional teacher’s assistant for every 12 students with disabilities, and there would be money left over.
Your voice matters. Tell Congress to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.