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Fulfilling the Promise of IDEA: Remarks on the 35th Anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act



I am so happy to be here today to celebrate the transformative impact of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For 35 years, IDEA has guaranteed students with disabilities their civil right to a free, appropriate public education. Through it, millions of students with disabilities have received an education that prepares them to be full participants in our economy and our communities.

As President Obama says: "Today, children and youth with disabilities have a place in our classrooms alongside their peers, and are graduating with the knowledge and skills needed for postsecondary education and beyond."

But for all of the progress, we can all agree that we haven't completely fulfilled the promise of IDEA. Our children continue to face prejudices and lingering roadblocks.

No belief is more damaging in education than the misperception that children with disabilities cannot really succeed and shouldn't be challenged to reach the same high standards as all children.

It's a special honor to be here with so many people who have dedicated their lives to ending any myth that a student with disabilities can't learn or that a disability limits a child's potential.

Many of you are parents and have faced those prejudices every day. You are your children's best advocates.

You know that they are capable of achieving so much more than others may expect of them. You've believed in them when others haven't.

I thank you for all your hard work and advocacy – and I promise you that we're working hard here to realize the full potential of IDEA.

I'm honored to work with the great advocates for IDEA in Congress.

I want to thank Senators Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi and Representatives George Miller and John Kline for their unwavering commitment to this important issue and for being co-sponsors of today's event. Sen. Harkin and Chairman Miller voted for this bill 35 years ago. In the two years I've been in Washington, I've had the pleasure of working with senators and congressmen from both sides of the aisle.

Education must be the one issue that we can all agree should transcend politics. All of us – every political leader, every activist, every educator, every parent – owe it to our children and to our nation to work together to give every child the world-class education they need and deserve.

Thirty-five years ago, the passage of Public Law 94-142 was a model of bipartisan co-operation as Democrats and Republicans worked together to do what was right for America's children.

The law was a major civil rights victory. We must never lose sight of the history here. In 1975, more than one million children with disabilities were being turned away from school altogether.

Hundreds of thousands of children with severe disabilities were in institutions that didn't meet their needs.

Those students with disabilities who did attend public schools often were bused long distances to schools where they had little chance to interact with the full range of their peers.

Those who went to a neighborhood school were usually placed in separate classrooms – not infrequently in a room as unwelcoming as a converted broom closet.

Even worse, many students with learning disabilities were never identified for the services they needed. Instead, they were labeled as lazy or unfocused and never received the supports that would enable them to reach their true potential.

Through IDEA, Democrats and Republicans agreed on several important principles. Students with disabilities should be guaranteed a "free, appropriate public education."

They should learn side by side with peers of all abilities. They should have an individualized education program to guide their educational experience.

And, parents should work with school officials as partners in their children's education.

These are the foundational principles that have transformed education for students with disabilities.

After 94-142's passage, others noticed the simple yet profound principles guiding the law and have used them to define school reforms over the past decades. Those tenets have been formative to our school improvement strategy and to our Blueprint for ESEA reauthorization.

Through IDEA, we learned that students with disabilities will succeed if challenged and given support to reach higher standards.

Now we're committed to raising the academic bar for all students so they're prepared to succeed in college and careers. The days of dummying down standards and expectations for every child must end. Low standards may help some politicians look good, but they are terrible for children, terrible for education and terrible for our country's economic vitality.

Through IDEA, we learned that students excel when their individual learning needs are addressed.

Today, we're committed to personalizing learning for all students through technology and using data to support teachers' practice. The goal has changed from just teaching a class to ensuring that every child in that classroom is actually learning.

Through IDEA, we've learned that parents are indispensable participants in their children's education. That's why, even in very tight budget times, we have proposed doubling the amount of money available for parent involvement under Title I. Parents must be full and equal partners in children's education.

These principles of IDEA have been the foundation for the tremendous success for students with disabilities over the past 35 years.

Today, students with disabilities are learning alongside their peers. Ninety-five percent of students with disabilities attend a neighborhood school. Sixty percent of them spend at least 80 percent of their day within the regular school environment.

The data show us that we're making progress on outcomes. In 2007, nearly 60 percent of students with disabilities graduated high school with a regular diploma.

That's almost twice the percentage just twenty years earlier. Almost half of students with disabilities enroll in postsecondary education.

But while America can absolutely celebrate those successes, we cannot begin to rest on our laurels.

While the graduation rate and postsecondary enrollment rate are both increasing, but they're still far too low.

Over the past 20 years, the employment rate of adults with disabilities has remained unacceptably low.

And although students with disabilities are included in their neighborhood schools more than ever before, we haven't created a seamless system that addresses the needs of every child.

As many of you know, one of my top priorities for the new year is to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and to do it in a bipartisan manner. Most of us know the current version of the law as the No Child Left Behind Act.

We want to make sure that students with disabilities are included in all aspects of ESEA – especially in the accountability system.

One thing No Child Left Behind got right was hold schools accountable for all students and highlight the achievement gaps between subgroups of students. We absolutely want to continue that – but we want to improve on it as well.

Right now, accountability under ESEA isn't based on student growth. Under out Blueprint for Reform of ESEA, accountability decisions will be based on both student growth and student achievement – and will reward schools where achievement is increasing significantly.

We'll be working to ensure that we have the right policies and incentives in place to help states and districts accelerate achievement for students with disabilities.

We want to make sure that students with disabilities are included in all aspects of ESEA, and to continue to measure achievement gaps and work to close them. We need to focus on raising the bar for all children – particularly those who aren't on track for success in college and careers.

We have a long way to keep the promises of IDEA. Now that we know what success looks like, I am confident that we'll achieve that goal.

I know many of you could stand up here and tell stories of the successes your own children or students have had. And I encourage you to do so with your friends, their teachers, and the leaders of your communities.

But I'd like to highlight just two of IDEA's countless success stories.

First, there's Haben Girma, who you will hear from later today. Haben is deaf-blind. The daughter of immigrants from Eritrea in Northeast Africa, Haben means "pride" in her parents' native language.

And I'm sure her parents were proud when Haben graduated as the valedictorian of the class of 2006 at Skyline High School in Oakland, California.

Haben will tell you the stories of her world travels to build schools in Africa and attend a disability conference in Costa Rica.

This past summer, she came to Washington with Deaf-Blind Young Adults in Action to advocate for the needs of deaf-blind people. The group met with dozens of congressional offices and with the team at the Department of Education.

They told the group about the need for teachers who understand the unique needs of deaf-blind students. Today, she's attending Harvard Law School and plans to dedicate her career to advocating for persons with disabilities.

Second, there's Peter Gwazdauskas. Peter has Down Syndrome.

For his first four years in school, he attended a separate program for children with significant disabilities. There, he wasn't learning the social skills he needed to realize his parents' long-term goal for him to live in the community.

Through the persistence of his mother and the dedication of a teacher, he was fully included in a 3rd grade classroom.

The story of his successful integration into the classroom became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary in 1993.

I'm happy to report that Peter was fully included for the rest of his school experience. In high school, he was the manager of the JV soccer team.

After he earned a certificate of completion, his parents formed a support team to help him transition into independent life.

Some of the team's most dedicated members were friends he made from the soccer team. They're still his buddies.

Peter now lives independently with a service provider. He volunteers in offices and is an enthusiastic fan of the high school and college sports teams in his hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia. He is an active participant in two churches. In short, he is a full participant in and contributor to his community.

These are just two of literally millions of IDEA's success stories. Haben and Peter show us what every person with disabilities can accomplish with the right education and the support from parents, friends, and teachers.

Haben and Peter received a world-class education that has prepared them for success after high school and to be participants and role models in their communities.

But we all know that we aren't yet providing a world-class education for every child with a disability. And we won't rest until we do that.

A lot of the people in this room have been fighting to improve the lives of students with disabilities for 35 years or more. You have known all along that education is the civil rights issue of our time.

With our collective courage, commitment, and compassion, we will see the day when all children with disabilities grow up to be successful adults who are fully integrated into the community and strong contributors to our national economy.

Working together, we will keep IDEA's promise to all of our children with disabilities.

I'm honored to join you in this important work.


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