In the wake of Governor Sarah Palin announcing that families of children with special needs would “‘have a friend and advocate in the White House” as the camera panned to her infant son, Trig, who has Down Syndrome, during her speech at the Republican National Convention last Wednesday night, today’s New York Times takes a closer look at what she’s done and not done for disabled children in Alaska, and about what kind of an “advocate” she might be.
Alaska, both by dint of its sparse population and lack of resources, has often struggled to provide care and educational services for its roughly 18,000 children with physical and emotional disabilities.
For years the state shipped thousands of children out of state for mental health services, a problem so acute that Ms. Palin’s predecessor created a program intended solely to get enough services in the state to bring the children back; from 2004 to 2007 the number of children sent out of state fell to 300 from about 600.
While the state made a decision to close down mental health institutions in the 1990s, it has been unable to provide alternative services for children with mental health issues.
Ms. Palin recently signed legislation that rewrote the state’s school financing formulas, in the process dramatically increasing the budget for school districts that serve children with extreme special needs. “She had no role whatsoever” in the development of the legislation, said its author, Representative Mike Hawker, a Republican. “Her role was signing. She recognized the importance of what we did and endorsed it.”
Democrats have pointed, sometimes correctly, sometimes erroneously, to items in the state budget for the disabled that Ms. Palin cut. According to state documents, she cut the state’s Special Olympics budget in half.
The New York Times also notes that Senator John McCain voted to reauthorize IDEA, but also voted against “a measure, with nearly every other member of his party, to increase financing through a reduction in tax cuts for the wealthy.” Gov. Palin is a school-choice advocate and Sen. McCain is a proponent of school vouchers, “denounced by many advocates for children with special needs as draining public money away from special education programs.”
As the New York Times says,
To those in Alaska who work with children with special needs, Ms. Palin’s pronouncement was surprising; the disabled have not been a centerpiece of Ms. Palin’s 20-months in office or any of her campaigns for office.
Fully funding IDEA, the ADA restoration act, the Community Choice Act of 2007, the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act of 2007: It will be of more than interest to hear Gov. Palin speak about all of these. (Go here to read what Mike Strautmanis, Obama’s Chief Counsel, has to say on these issues.)