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Special Educators Head to Capitol Hill With 'Sense of Urgency'

Alexandria, Va.

Special educators are fanning out across Capitol Hill Tuesday, spreading a few targeted messages for Washington lawmakers: Congress should pass a budget that allocates more money to special education and gifted education, oppose efforts to divert public money to private school vouchers, and fight any bill that would cut Medicaid coverage for children's health services.

So-called "Hill days" are a tradition for advocacy groups of all types. But members the Council of Exceptional Children and the Council of Administrators of Special Education, who have joined together this year for a "special education legislative summit," report feeling particular pressure to get their points across. 

"I am feeling a huge sense of urgency," said Tara Rinehart, the director of special services for the Wayne Township in Indianapolis, a 16,200-student urban district. She met with her superintendent before making the trip to hammer out talking points to share with Indiana's congressional delegation—one of which was to preserve Medicaid.

The district, like many others, uses Medicaid funds to provide services to children with disabilities who are eligible for the program. But the program has a broader reach for her student body, she said: About 55 percent of the children in the district rely on the program. 

Paul Zinni, the superintendent of the 700-student Avon, Mass., district, said one of his goals is a perennial one for special educators—getting a larger federal investment in special education. And he's also worried about school choice provisions that might leave a difficult-to-fill hole in his budget. 

Before traveling to speak with lawmakers, the members the special education groups spent a day in meetings about federal education policy. That includied a session with Kimberly Richey, the deputy assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, in a keynote address that was closed to the press. Members reported that Richey, who has held the position for about two weeks, fielded questions on vouchers and charter schools, among others. 

Congress is currently debating provisions that run counter to the messaging special educators are trying to spread. For example, the president's proposed budget would keep special education spending for school-aged children level at approximately $12 billion. The special educators' groups are pushing for $13.4 billion and support a bill that would have the federal government paying 40 percent of the cost of educating a special education student. (The current contribution is around 16 percent.) 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a strong supporter of school choice programs, including vouchers, and the administration's proposed budget includes money for a new federally-supported choice program.  Such programs 'empower' parents, DeVos has argued.

Special education advocates are concerned that students who use vouchers to leave private schools will lose the protections they're entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  And Rinehart said the vouchers will also not help families who don't have the money to pay the tuition bill that the voucher won't cover.

"It's not a choice for everyone, it's a choice for a chosen few," she said. 

But before Congress can take up the budget in earnest, it has to wrestle with its plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The bills currently under consideration shrink federal spending on Medicaid. 

So special educators feel they have a lot to talk about. And, they argue, they have a broad base of expertise that lawmakers should draw on.

"I understand they need to balance the budget, but you don't do that by taking away the education of our kids," Zinni said. Politicians "need to ask the people who know what's going on, and stop trying to figure it out themselves." 

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