It’s time for Congress to keep its promise to our most vulnerable kids

I remember it like it was yesterday: The year I had 39 sixth-graders in my class at Orchard Elementary in West Valley City, Utah. Our district couldn’t hire enough teachers, so they just loaded up every class. Twelve of my kids were with diagnosed with special education needs.

We had no school social workers, no counselors, and no school psychologists to provide services that some of those kids really needed. Our school nurse was the secretary, Marge, who had a box of Band-Aids in her desk drawer.

A big part of the problem was that we didn’t have the support we needed from Congress to help meet the needs of low-income and special needs kids.

It breaks my heart that educators today face the same dilemmas I did decades ago—not enough staff and specialists, outdated classroom resources, and large class sizes that make the process of identifying and meeting student needs that much harder and slower.

Congress made a promise to help level the playing field for low-income students by providing their schools with additional resources through Title I more than 50 years ago. But it has never properly funded the program.

Nor has Congress kept its promise to fund 40 percent of the costs of special education, as it laid out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which passed more than 40 years ago.

These two foundational education programs have been critically underfunded from day one. The gap in federal funding this year alone is $52 billion.

Over the past 15 years, the tally is $686 billion. That is a national shame. Here is what every school in this country could provide students if that gap did not exist:

  • Health and mental health services for every student, including dental and vision services;
  • A full-time nurse in every Title I school;
  • A full-time librarian for every Title I school;
  • A full-time additional counselor for every Title I school, or a full-time teaching assistant or paraeducator in every Title I classroom across the country.

Educators know their students deserve more; it’s what the #RedForEd movement is all about. They’re doing all they can to nurture students’ talents and dreams, but they need the support the federal government has promised for so long.

Betsy Perry, a National Board Certified special education teacher who works in a school that serves a majority low-income community in Silver Spring, Md., came to Capitol Hill last week to share her perspective on the importance of funding Title I and IDEA at a briefing.

As she told members of Congress and their staffers, many of her students at Harmony Hills Elementary are recent arrivals from other countries. Some have had interrupted schooling, and some have suffered trauma. They enter school with layers of needs: First, they need to know they are safe. They need to know they won’t go hungry, they need help learning English, and some need additional special education services.

Betsy Perry knows their issues can be addressed—through family outreach, food programs, counseling referrals, small group work, and other supports. She has seen students in the afterschool program gain confidence and an enthusiasm for learning.

But then we have this other Betsy—Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She’s not fighting for kids in Title I schools and students with special needs. Her plan to direct $50 billion in public money to private schools all but guarantees that Congress will not be able to keep their promises to fully fund Title I and IDEA.

Betsy Perry

Let’s not lose hope—some lawmakers see right through DeVos’ agenda.

Just last week, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Susie Lee introduced a bill called the Keep Our PACT Act that creates a mandatory 10-year path to fully funding both Title I and IDEA. (The word PACT, in this case, stands for Promise to America’s Children and Teachers.)

Sen. Van Hollen is a long-time champion for full funding, and Rep. Lee, newly elected, has made it one of her first major priorities. I was proud to stand by them the day the bill was introduced.

All of us can help: Tell your members of Congress to co-sponsor the Keep Our PACT Act. Remind everyone who represents you that every child deserves a great public school education, no matter where they live, where they’ve come from, or what obstacles they face.

It’s time for Congress to finally do the right thing and fully fund Title I and IDEA.

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