Today, Sarah Palin gave a major policy speech on special education. As a father of a boy with Down Syndrome, I have followed her comments on special education with interest. I know that many of you want to attack her for exploiting her child for political gain, I know that the rage she inspires in most of the readers of Daily KOS is powerful and, I feel, often justified.
But regardless of her policies and views before Trig was born, before the diagnosis, she's a different person now. Having lived through it, I know she's different.
But she's not a different politician - so she made it all about earmarks and taxes. She raises real problems, but, as usual, she's doing it wrong.
Here's a link to the text of her speech.
I've got to confess to you, there's a lot in here that I can identify with. It's apolitical, it's the kind of thing I wrote about in a recent op-ed in the Star Tribune, and I'm glad she gave this speech.
When she says:
One of the most wonderful experiences in this campaign has been to see all the families of children with special needs who come out to rallies and events just like this. We have a bond there. We know that children with special needs inspire a special love. You bring your sons and daughters with you, because you are proud of them, as I am of my son.
The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable.
As for our baby boy, Trig, for Todd and me he is only more precious because he is vulnerable. In some ways, I think we stand to learn more from him than he does from us. When we hold Trig and care for him, we don't feel scared anymore. We feel blessed.
She's right. We do have a bond. I really hate having that bond, because Palin represents so much of what I dislike in American politics, but it's there none the less. That experience of finding out that your child has Down syndrome is transformative in a way that I am still struggling to articulate. Furthermore, she's right to call for the full funding of IDEA, of the need to ensure that parents like us can find capable schools for our children. This line especially resonates with me:
Many of you parents here have been through the drill: You sit down with teachers and counselors to work out the IEP -- an individual education plan for your child. The school may be trying its best, but they're overstretched. They may keep telling you that your child is "progressing well," and no extra services are required. They keep telling you that -- but you know better.
You know that your children are not getting all of the help they need, at a time when they need it most. The parents of children with special needs ask themselves every day if they are doing enough, if they are doing right by their sons and daughters.
I do. I wonder if I need to structure my son's play to be more therapeutic. Get him more time with other children. Push him to walk. NOT push him to walk. Get him in the water. Get him into "music together classes." The things we could be doing go on and on. And, let me tell you, the days that I feel my son's schools (he's not 2 yet, so this is hypothetical) aren't doing everything they can for him, I will pursue every option I can to change that.
So far, so good. I'm not voting for her, but I'm glad she's talking about these challenges that parents like us face. But then the talk goes south.
We've got a three trillion dollar budget, and Congress spends some 18 billion dollars a year on earmarks for political pet projects. That's more than the shortfall to fully fund the IDEA. And where does a lot of that earmark money end up? It goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good -- things like fruit fly research in Paris, France, or a public policy center named for the guy who got the earmark.
Right. So out of that 3 trillion dollars, the way to solve special ed. is to focus on this 18 billion? What about this earmark for special ed in Illinois? Or this one in Maine for services for families with autistic children. Pretty sure Susan Collins (Sen-R) is behind that one. Those are two I found with a cursory search, but I'm sure there are millions of dollars of additional earmarks for special ed.
Then there's this piece on research:
For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference. That's why we're going to strengthen NIH. We're going to work on long-term cures, and in the short-term, we're going to work on giving these families better information.
Sounds good, but you never know what basic research will lead to cures or treatments. What about stem-cells, Governor Palin? Trisomy-21 occurs when the cell first divides from one to two (if I understand the science correctly) - doesn't that sound like something that might involve studying embryonic stem cells? Does to me, but I'm not a scientist. Of course, neither is Sarah Palin.
And then she finished by attacking the Obama tax plan, implying that a vote for Obama is a vote against families with special needs, because he's going to tax Special Needs trusts. You know, I don't want any trust I'm fortunate enough to leave for my son to be taxed too heavily, but I'm not really worried about it. I'm worried about, how did Palin put it, "the most vulnerable." Children with special needs whose parents aren't lucky enough to leave trusts, who don't have good schools, who don't have resource centers, whose parents don't have knowledge - lives without hope.
I'm glad Palin is talking about her son's life, not just her decision not to have an abortion. Awareness is a good thing. Now let's take that awareness and go after real solutions, not her partisan off-topic talking points.
Special needs education and treatment isn't about taxes or earmarks. It's about our children's lives.
Edit: Thanks to Blue VA for this link. Turns out research on fruit flies has helped us learn about autism.