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Warren: 'We Are Failing on Our Country's Promise' to Children With Disabilities

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UPDATED: This post has been updated to reflect that Warren is a former speech-language pathologist who worked with students with disabilties.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on Monday introduced a plan designed to protect the rights of people with disabilities, including children in the nation's public schools, and ensure equitable treatment for them.

Warren's campaign released "Protecting the Rights and Equality of People with Disabilities" on Monday, providing more detail on her broader K-12 education plan and her pledge to commit an additional $20 billion in grant funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Act and expand the program to cover more services for children, ages 3 to 5.

The document touches on some of the most glaring issues in special education: disparities for students with disabilities; school buildings that aren't Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant; and discipline practices that disproportionately affect black, Latino, and Native American students with disabilities.

The national graduation rate for students with disabilities is 68 percent, roughly 18 percentage points lower than the rate for student without disabilities.

To address those issues, Warren, a former speech language pathologist who worked with students with disabilities, wants to ensure all students with disabilities have individualized education programs and access to college- and career-readiness programs.

While high school graduation rates for students with disabilities are on the rise, their post-graduation education and employment prospects remain a concern. Students with disabilities are less likely to enroll in college or find employment after high school than their peers without disabilities.

Warren's plans also call for making more support available to English-language learners with disabilities, a population that schools often have trouble identifying, and immigrant students.

 "When children with disabilities are supported and included, they can excel," Warren wrote. "But right now, we are failing on our country's promise to give them a great education."

During the Democratic presidential debate last month, the Massachusetts senator pledged to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—a pledge that several other candidates have also made. Warren's plans also dig into detail on the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, the potential impact of school surveillance practices on students with disabilities, and even discrimination against educators with disabilities.

"Our schools must also be safe and nurturing environments in which students with disabilities can thrive," Warren's plan reads.

In addition to more funding for IDEA, Warren outlines plans for $50 billion in infrastructure investment to ensure more schools are accessible for students with disabilities, new federal regulations to ensure that nonwhite students with disabilities are appropriately identified for special education services and not disproportionately disciplined in school, and expanded capacity at the Department of Education's office for civil rights to root out discrimination against educators with disabilities.

The plan also calls for pressing Congress to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act, legislation, co-sponsored by Warren, that would ban bullying and harassment based on "actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion." My colleague, Evie Blad, wrote about the anti-bullying legislation, which has failed to gain traction in Congress, back in 2015.

Warren also wants to develop language-development milestones for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and assess potential privacy violations caused by surveillance practices that could disproportionately affect students with disabilities, such as video monitoring of special education classrooms and efforts to include students' individualized education plans in school security databases.

Warren also pledged to step up enforcement of Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination by recipients of federal money, including public schools as well as charter schools. The law applies to children who have a physical or mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Photo Credit: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at a recent congressional hearing -- Eman Mohammed for Education Week.

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