News

Ballot initiative promises disability access, but with no accountability

By JESS BENHAM

Legislation protecting the rights of children with disabilities was very new when I was in grade school, and few schools knew their legal responsibilities. Though I would’ve qualified for a diagnosis and accommodations for disability, my elementary school was unwilling to work with my parents to support me as I learned and grew. Thankfully, I had CHIP health insurance, free school lunches, and a supportive church family who helped my parents when they could, but our lack of financial resources made it difficult for my parents to pressure our school district to provide the supports and services I needed to receive an equal education.

As the grown up version of that disadvantaged child, I, of course, want more resources for free school lunches, preschool, and after school programming. Nevertheless, I am in opposition to the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Ballot Initiative because I want to make sure that funding for such initiatives remains under public control. Under this proposal, the funds would be controlled by the Office of the Allegheny County Children’s Fund, and there is no public control over how the money would be allocated. As the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network notes, we have no information “as to how the fund’s advisory commission would be appointed, or how they would oversee what is estimated to be nearly $18 million in annual revenue.”

Despite claims of grassroots support, the reality is that the signature collection process to raise this referendum on the ballot was conducted by paid canvassers, who didn’t explain in detail the proposal at the doors, using emotional appeals about supporting children to encourage signing. Pam Harbin of Education Rights Network noted that, even after attending one of the coffee shop Q&A sessions, she still left with more questions than answers. I am not critiquing here my many friends who were part of the canvassing efforts; capitalism means that campaign workers take the work that is available. Instead, I am critiquing the system that fed canvassers only vague answers that seemed more like they were designed to shut down debate than to seriously address concerns.

This process was funded by non-profits who spent upwards of $355,000 on the campaign as of June 2018. Sadly, the very real possibility is that public schools might receive none of this money; it may very well be allocated to the very same non-profits who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on this campaign.

Setting these major concerns aside for the moment, there is also no guarantee that the funds would be spent in ways that would benefit all children, especially those most disadvantaged. Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were passed the year I was born. The IDEA applies while the child is at school – and is enforceable via state-funded objective mediation – unlike the ADA, which is only enforceable via a lawsuit funded by the plaintiff. Thus, when kids with disabilities are in school, they are entitled to supports, services, and accommodations, and those without significant financial resources still have the ability to enforce their rights through the IDEA.

This protection disappears during afterschool and pre-school programs unless they are administered by the public school system, a condition that is not guaranteed under this referendum. It’s true that such programs can’t discriminate on the basis of disability or any other protected class status, but this protection is only enforceable via lawsuit. Lawsuits require significant investments of time and financial resources, as well as an understanding of a complex process, placing the burden on parents and guardians.

Furthermore, even if they don’t explicitly discriminate, these programs aren’t legally required to provide necessary accommodations and supportive services. So, while they can’t bar the door to kids with disabilities, they can and regularly do deny the accommodations and services that would enable kids with disabilities to participate.

This proposed amendment offers no additional protections for kids with disabilities and no guarantee that the funding will be equitably distributed. I worry that this funding will only serve to reinforce a system that disadvantages black, indigenous, and other kids of color; kids with disabilities; trans and gender non-conforming kids; kids from families with fewer financial resources; and other marginalized children.

We have existing mechanisms for funding educational initiatives through county government, and education activists have been fighting for years to increase funding for these existing mechanisms (which have public oversight, unlike this proposed amendment). Vote “no” when you see this on your ballot, and instead join organizations like Education Rights Network in fighting for better solutions.

Jess Benham is the Director of Public Policy at the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, serves on the board of Autism Connection of PA, and works in an advisory capacity with a number of disability organizations in the Pittsburgh area and nationally.

(TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No. 9 November 2018. All rights reserved)

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