In her well-received speech before delegates at the Republican National Convention last night, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska made an explicit appeal to families of children with disabilities:
...in April, my husband, Todd, and I welcomed our littlest one into the world, a perfectly beautiful baby boy named Trig. From the inside, no family ever seems typical. That's how it is with us.
Our family has the same ups and downs as any other—the same challenges and the same joys. Sometimes even the greatest joys bring challenge. And children with special needs inspire a special love.
To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters. I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.
As many know by now, Palin's son Trig has Down syndrome.
But, while Palin was governor, did she slash special education funding from the state's budget? That was the latest charge that was flying around the Internet soon after her speech, and a reader has posted the same criticism of Palin on this blog. I've seen the same critique from posters on several Web sites now, all of whom seem to suggest that while Palin courts the disability community on the one hand, she's cutting the budget for needed services on the other.
From what I can tell, however, these charges against Palin are false, driven by a misreading of the budget documents for the state.
The "proof," as has been presented, is
the part of the fiscal 2007 budget for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, which includes funding for the Alaska School for the Deaf, students who are patients at the Alaska Psychiatric Hospital, and the Alaska Challenge Youth Academy, a statewide, boot-camp-style program. The budget that year was $8,265,300.
But the next year, fiscal 2008, the budget is shown as $3,156,000, leading to the accusation that Palin cut the department's budget.
The difference in funding, however, is because the Alaska Challenge Youth Academy moved to a budget line item of its own. In the fiscal 2009 budget, you can see that the academy alone has a budget of $6,082,100. When you add that to the $3,156,000 that is being spent on all the other projects, it adds up to $9,238,100--an approximately 12 percent INCREASE in spending on all those particular programs, put together, since fiscal 2007.
It should also be noted that Alaska spends far more on education than just these few programs indicate. Education is typically one of the biggest parts of any state's budget, and in Alaska lawmakers plan to spend about $1.2 billion for fiscal 2009.
More accurate information about Palin's education record may be found at the newspapers in her state. The Anchorage Daily News, for example, ran a story in March about her approval of a large spending increase:
Gov. Sarah Palin has quietly signed into law the biggest rewrite of the state's education funding system in a decade, despite hints that she might veto the package.
Palin had said last week the package was incomplete. Lawmakers responded with a threat to override any veto.
She signed the bill Thursday without ceremony, applauding lawmakers' efforts in a news release.
The legislation phases in increases to per-pupil spending, increases to students with special needs and adjustments to cost factors that compensate school districts outside Anchorage for their steeper costs. It's expected to add an extra $180 million to school districts over the next five years.
Edited to add: I'd be remiss if I didn't include the reporting of my own colleague, Sean Cavanagh, who covers Alaska as one of his beats. He wrote earlier this year that the legislature and governor approved a bill that raises spending for students with special needs to $73,840 in fiscal 2011, from the current $26,900 per student in fiscal 2008.
Added 9/5: It's the blog post that keeps on growing! Reader "Sunny" asked in the comments why Palin was originally reluctant to sign the education bill, as stated in the Anchorage Daily News article I quote above. A short article I found in the newspaper's archives suggests that she didn't want to sign the bill because she wanted more money for schools included in it:
Gov. Sarah Palin says she will approve an education funding bill despite some qualms that schools could be shortchanged next year.
Palin hinted on Thursday that she could veto the bill, which was based on recommendations from this summer's Joint Legislative Education Task Force and had widespread support from lawmakers.
Palin wanted to raise the base student allocation, currently $5,380 per pupil, by $200, but the Legislature only approved $100.