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Candidates Discuss Plans for Students with Disabilities

Washington, Oct. 31 – Only 65 percent of youth with disabilities graduate high school, 19 percent less than students without disabilities, found a White House study earlier this month. Youth who do not graduate high school are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system and have a more difficult time entering the workforce.

More than 6.5 million students in public education receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including special education or other accommodations to help them succeed. Studies have shown, however, that students in higher education have a harder time accessing proper accommodations.

As part of the #PwDsVote Disability Questionnaire, the nonpartisan nonprofit disability organization RespectAbility asked candidates running for president, senate or governor about their plans for the improving education for youth with disabilities. Every candidate was given an equal opportunity to respond and if they are not listed, it is because they declined to answer.

The quotes in this article are the candidates’ answers to question six in the gubernatorial/senate questionnaire: “Do you have a plan to enable students with disabilities, including those from historically marginalized communities and backgrounds, to receive the diagnosis, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and accommodations/services they need to succeed in school and be prepared for competitive employment?” This was adapted from a similar question, number five, in the presidential questionnaire.

While Democrats and Republicans are divided on many education specifics, when it comes to educating youth with disabilities, candidates from both sides of the aisle spoke of their support for IDEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

“Last year, I worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass a much needed update to our nation’s education policy, and the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law in December 2015,” responded Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is a Republican running for re-election in New Hampshire. “This important legislation will truly ensure that every student has the opportunities they need to succeed in the classroom and be prepared for their futures.”

“My first position in public service was serving on the Advisory Committee to the Adequacy in Education and Finance Commission, and I have continued this advocacy throughout my time in public office,” wrote current New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat running for the senate seat. “I will continue to push for these priorities in the U.S. Senate, and I will work to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to make good on Congress’ commitment to support special education.”

You can read the candidates’ full responses below:

Presidential Candidates
NOTE: Donald Trump declined to respond to the survey.

Former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton (D)
“I will work to ensure that students with disabilities, especially kids of color, have a cradle to college pipeline, not a school to prison one. I have fought for kids, including those with disabilities, throughout my entire career, beginning as a young lawyer at the Children’s Defense fund, when I walked door to door gathering stories about the lack of schooling and educational opportunities for children with disabilities. This contributed to passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, landmark legislation that I supported throughout my time in the Senate, including by:

  • Voting to pass the Individuals with Disabilities Education Reauthorization Act of 2004, which not only authorized expenditure increases of $2.3 billion per year to more fully fund IDEA-based programs, but also reflected language from my Personnel Excellence For Students With Disabilities Act of 2003, providing joint training for administrators, parents, teachers, related services personnel, behavioral specialists, and other school staff on positive behavioral intervention and management.
  • Consistently voting for and co-sponsoring legislation designed to increase funding for special education; and
  • Co-sponsoring the Campus Care and Counseling Act and the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which established support for mental and behavioral health services to students on college campuses and dedicated a majority of funds to statewide youth suicide early-intervention and prevention strategies.

As President, I will continue to bolster educational opportunities for all students. I have long fought to fulfill the federal government’s long-standing authorization to provide 40 percent of the average per-pupil public expenditure for each and every child with a disability, and I will continue to fight to move closer to that commitment when I am president. I will also work to provide funding for universal preschool education, make high-quality education a priority for every child in America by building on the Every Student Succeeds Act, and ensure college is affordable for all.

Even with advances in education, studies suggest that as many as half of those who live with mental health conditions do not receive treatment. An estimated 17 million children in the United States, many of whom wind up in the school to prison pipeline, either have or have had a mental health conditions. The economic impact is enormous, but the human cost is worse, with too many families left to address the health issues they face on their own. We must do better. I will work to increase mental health services for people across the board, including children, to disrupt this school-to-prison pipeline and ensure all Americans can live healthy and productive lives.”

Gubernatorial Candidates

State Sen. Colin Bonini (DE-R)
“When people with disabilities turn 21, they reach the edge of a cliff and lose many services. They need a transition plan. When I’ve previously looked into it, I was told more money was needed to make it happen. My recollection is tremendous frustration for the jump from the end of IDEA funding to living as an adult.

Getting back in to the culture of work is tough and it is important for a transition plan to be created for students with disabilities for when those services end. I will support and lead efforts to ease this transition.”

Rep. John Carney (DE-D)
“A main part of my plan to improve education in Delaware is focusing on early childhood education and services for children from birth to five years old. Delaware has made significant progress in recent years on testing children at an earlier age for signs of developmental delays or disabilities. We need to continue improving this system by streamlining and prioritizing early childhood education efforts within state government, building stronger connections between the early childhood and K-12 systems, and providing parents with needed early intervention, coaching and support.”

Gov. Steve Bullock (MT-D)
“I will always invest in strengthening public schools instead of privatizing them, and under my watch Montana has made record investments improving the quality of public education. During my time as governor, more students are graduating high school than ever before in our state’s history. My opponent, Greg Gianforte, supports policies that would take money away from public education and give it to private schools.”

Mr. Greg Gianforte (MT-R)
“I believe that the goal in education should be to help every child reach their full potential. For students with disabilities, they need to be taught valuable skills just like anyone else. This is the great thing about technology, and why one of my primary goals is to get computer science into every high school. Particularly for students with physical disabilities, this provides a great skill that is in demand.

We also have to recognized that students with disabilities have special educational needs. This is why I supported a bill in our last session that would have allowed parents of special needs students to establish educational savings accounts. The ESA’s would give parents and students more options to find the right school for them in their community. Unfortunately, the current governor vetoed it.

If we get education right for persons with disabilities, then the job picture becomes a lot easier. If disabled people have skills that are in demand, they’ll be hired. That’s just good business.”

Ms. Linda Coleman (NC-D) – running for Lt. Gov.
“Education is the great equalizer, but it needs to be adequately funded, designed to connect with its target audience, and executed effectively in order to work well. The state constitution requires the State to provide adequate funding and services to ensure that all students receive “the opportunity for a sound basic education.” The first step here is to fulfill our commitment to properly and fully fund public education for every student in North Carolina. The second is to identify the needs of each student, which requires diagnosing disabilities. If we’re miseducating our children, then we’re setting them up for failure, and that is unacceptable. As Lt. Governor, I will advocate for our youth on the State Board of Education and build coalitions in the General Assembly.”

Mr. Mike Weinholtz (UT-D)
“Early diagnosis of an individual with a disability is vital to their long-term success. Not only does it allow for them to be placed on a list to eventually receive disability, which operates on a “first come, first serve” basis per disability status, but it also allows for any necessary training to take place. IEPs are obviously vital to the success of any individual after diagnosis, and therefore I feel that long-term funding for qualified Direct Support Professional and/or support coordinator would allow for consistency.

I believe every school-age child should have the opportunity to be diagnosed if there is reason to suspect a disability. This early investment will help the parents and provide support for them and, upon diagnosis, these parents should be able to automatically enroll children in programs so that both parent and child are able to get the support and advice they need, working with school councilors.”

Sec. Sue Minter (VT-D)
“My plan is to strongly support public education and the mainstreaming of children with disabilities. Vermont has been a national leader in this area and I am committed to keeping it that way.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (VT-R)
“I am a strong advocate for school choice in Vermont, in large part because every student is different and not every student is best served by the public school in his or her district but ultimately, parents should be empowered to find the right fit for their children’s needs. I believe when students, parents and educators work together to create the best learning environment, students are much more likely to be engaged in their education and feel motivated to develop those skills for future employment. I strongly support expanding the use of flexible learning plans so that each student can learn in the manner and setting that is most constructive for his or her strengths, requirements and needs.”

Senate Candidates

Mr. Ron Crumpton (AL-D)
“I will strive to expand opportunities in education, employment and health care for Americans with disabilities.”

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris (CA-D)
“Kamala Harris has been a vocal advocate for children’s rights, including young students with disabilities. As California Attorney General, she led an investigation of a California school accused of abusing children with disabilities. She also created the Bureau of Children Justice, a division of the California Department of Justice specifically aimed at cracking down on discrimination and inequities in education. In the Bureau’s first action, Attorney General Harris sent a letter to officials in all 58 counties in California outlining their legal responsibilities with regard to foster youth and urging each county to evaluate their current enforcement and oversight policies and practices. The Bureau currently has multiple active investigations related to disability rights for youth. Kamala will continue this fight in the Senate to make sure that disparities in our public education system are eliminated and that all children, including students with disabilities, receive the diagnosis, IEP, and accommodations they need. Kamala also supports President Obama’s important proposals to increase funding for the education of children with disabilities.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA-D)
“I am a strong supporter of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Although not perfect, ESSA takes great strides to level the playing field for historically marginalized communities, including those with disabilities. By implementing challenging but reachable standards for disabled students, and including student performance in school accountability reports, ESSA improves upon the outdated policies of No Child Left Behind. Individualized Education Plans (IEP) are a proven method to ensure our students with disabilities have the guidance they need to academically succeed and become prepared for the workforce.”

Mr. John Carroll (HI-R)
“No, I do not have a plan.”

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (IL-D)
“I support accommodations and services for students with disabilities, intellectual, developmental, learning, physical or otherwise. I will fight for expanding access to IEPs, the services needed to access them and their effective implementation.”

Sen. Mark Kirk (IL-R)
“Senator Kirk supports considering funding for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) every year. He continually urges his colleagues to fully fund IDEA within each funding bill so we can move the needle closer to the 40 percent commitment we made thirty years ago.”

Mr. Patrick Wiesner (KS-D)
“I need more information before I can formulate a comprehensive plan. My goal is full employment for the disabled who want a job. I believe education is the way forward. My plan will be based on evidence provided by experts in the field.”

Mr. Foster Campbell (LA-D)
“Full funding for diagnosticians, and full supports for schools across the country is the first step towards achieving equality and setting all our kids up for success. The Federal Government is currently authorized to provide 40 percent of the average per-pupil public expenditure for students with disabilities. I support moving towards that goal more every year. I also support universal preschool which can help get early and much needed support for students with disabilities who currently go without.”

Ms. Caroline Fayard (LA-D)
“Making sure that people with disabilities receive the support they need during developmental stages is the right thing to do, especially for people of color and other marginalized groups. I will work to ensure that these students are receiving the funding they need.”

Mr. Abhay Patel (LA-R)
“Reforming our education system to meet the needs of all of our students is critical to our country’s future success. That begins by taking control of our children’s education away from Washington, D. C., and empowering our state and local governments. No one knows the educational needs of our children better than our communities.”

Del. Kathy Szeliga (MD-R)
“As an educator and a mother, I understand the value of an IEP. As the US Senator, I would work closely with the State of Maryland to make sure that IEPs are working in the best interest of our students.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD-D)
“I have introduced legislation, the IDEA Full Funding Act, to increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Part B grants to states to finally reach the forty percent average per pupil expenditure promised by Congress more than forty years ago. However, we also need to increase and sustain funding for IDEA programs focused on early detection, alongside early childhood education programs like Head Start and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program to improve early diagnosis and interventions.”

Sec. of State Jason Kander (MO-D)
“I believe the federal government can and should help provide communities the resources they need to empower teachers and parents, ensuring that our children receive the best education possible and giving every child the same opportunity for a quality education. For students with disabilities, it is critical that schools have the resources they need to empower these students to receive the support they deserve. One way to improve conditions for schools and the students with disabilities they teach is increase funding for schools, both at the federal level and here in Missouri through the foundation formula. We also need to do a better job of targeting the schools where it would be most effective. With school funding varying from school district to school district, the federal government needs to set clear standards (with cost-of-living adjustments) for minimum funding to ensure all children, regardless of where they live, have access to a high quality education.”

Rep. Joe Heck (NV-R)
“As a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, I worked closely with fellow committee members to draft and pass H.R. 5, the Student Success Act (signed into law as the Every Student Succeeds Act), legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and containing several provisions to help disabled students. Most importantly, the bill allows states to establish alternate achievement standards aligned to content standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and requires states to ensure their assessments include reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities and are allowed to adopt alternate assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Both of these provisions ensure students with disabilities are provided accommodations to achieve success based on their specific needs, not a federal government “one-size-fits-all” mandate.

In the 113th Congress (2013-14) I cosponsored H.R. 3505, the TEACH Act, which requires colleges and universities to ensure instructional materials are accessible for disabled students. Ensuring disabled students have access to an equal educational opportunity is the first step to ensuring they are successfully employed, productive and independent. My hope is that this provision will be included in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).”

Atty. Gen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV-D)
“I believe that all of our students deserve access to a world-class education, and that starts with adequate funding of our public school system. Every student should have an equal opportunity to succeed in the classroom, but I am very concerned with reports that many students with disabilities, particularly minorities and new immigrants, are often overlooked and do not receive the services they need to be successful. As a U.S. Senator, I will work on the federal level to support proposals that address the special needs of students with disabilities – like the Every Student Succeeds Act that provides for improved assessments and disability screenings for students during enrollment.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH-R)
“Last year, I worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass a much needed update to our nation’s education policy, and the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law in December 2015. This important legislation will truly ensure that every student has the opportunities they need to succeed in the classroom and be prepared for their futures. I also cosponsored a bill that was signed into law, the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education, and Support (CARES) Act, that would help efforts to support youth and adults with autism. I also cosponsored the bipartisan TEACH Act, which would ensure that college students with disabilities have greater accessibility to the educational materials they need to succeed in their pursuit of higher education.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan (NH-D)
“My first position in public service was serving on the Advisory Committee to the Adequacy in Education and Finance Commission, and I have continued this advocacy throughout my time in public office. As Governor, I recently signed a bill to help ensure that all public school students are screened for the identification of potential indicators or risk factors of dyslexia and related disorders upon enrollment in public kindergarten or first grade beginning in the 2017 school year, and in turn receive the necessary interventions.

I will continue to push for these priorities in the U.S. Senate, and I will work to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to make good on Congress’ commitment to support special education.”

Sen. Richard Burr (NC-R)
“First, I was deeply involved in the development of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which encourages greater use of early identification and accommodations for students with disabilities. I have long believed that schools have an important role to play in identifying the needs of students, addressing them, and setting high expectations that lead to academic success. I was pleased my bipartisan legislation was included in ESSA that would encourage school districts to use Title I dollars for these purposes. To me, this is a positive step toward ensuring students are getting these appropriate accommodations early and frequently in their school work.

As a long-time supporter of IDEA, I also believe it is Congress’ responsibility to fully-fund IDEA. Although I believe there have been many positive investments made over the years in our education spending, it is with deep concern that I have seen funds diverted from Part B of IDEA to other spending priorities. I continue to believe this is a misstep and one I look forward to addressing during IDEA’s upcoming reauthorization.

Also, I continue to hear from parents that the IEP process is not completely meeting their needs. Although states have great responsibility under IDEA to ensure their state plans and procedures are followed, I, along with my staff, continue to monitor these plans and the U.S. Department of Education’s enforcement to ensure that this is always the case.”

State Rep. Deborah Ross (NC-D)
“It is imperative that we give students all the support they need to succeed in school including providing clear diagnoses, Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and any needed accommodations. We must work to make sure that all students remain in the classroom when possible, not in out-of-school suspension, not in segregated schools, and not left to drop out of school altogether. In the State House, I sponsored legislation that provided more funding to schools for students with disabilities. But this is just the start. We need to change school policy to keep students in the classroom learning, rather than segregated, suspended, or even dropping out.”

Mr. Joe DeMare (OH-G)
“When I worked as a grant writer for a community college, I assisted in the design of one of the most successful Tech Prep programs in New York State. Key to the success of our Tech Prep program was that the academic requirements for the Tech Prep students were actually MORE stringent than for the general curriculum. However, these higher standards were presented in the context of real world work situations. So, students immediately saw how the math and mechanical skills they were learning applied to the “real” world. I believe this concept should be applied for integrating differently abled students into the work force as well. Internships are a valuable piece of this puzzle.

Our son graduated valedictorian from his deaf high school. However, he was also mainstreamed for his math and science courses, and had the second highest grade average in his hearing school as well. Part of the reason he succeeded was that we taught him from a very young age that being hard of hearing did not mean that he was limited in what he could do in life. Today he is completing a Master’s degree in Outdoor Education and living on his own in Alaska, going to school and working at Costco.”

Mr. Mark Callahan (OR-R)
“I believe that first there needs to be a complete assessment nationwide regarding these services. I believe educators, parents, and organizations should be involved in the process to work together to come up with actual solutions that will ensure every disabled child is provided the opportunity and resources to achieve their own goals and as well ensure they are being provided every opportunity a non disabled child is if not more.”

Mrs. Katie McGinty (PA-D)
“In my hometown of Philadelphia, we’ve seen in recent years how students with disabilities can be impacted when the funding is scarce and guidance counselors and support staff are cut. As the mother of three teenage daughters, I understand how important it is for teachers and administrators to be aware of students’ unique needs in order for them to provide a complete educational experience. In the Senate, I’ll fight to ensure that all schools have the funding they need to give kids adequate support.”

Mr. Jay Williams (SD-D)
“As a former school board member in my home community, I saw the IEP programs in our local school district being used with students with disabilities. I have a nephew who is deaf, and he was educated at the South Dakota School for the Deaf for a short time before he was returned to our local school district and educated in our own school system using an assigned deaf interpreter. This young man had an IEP that was used to plan and track his high school education. He ended his high school career as one of the students who delivered a commencement address at his graduation, assisted by his brother. His example provides me with an understanding of the value of these programs and if elected I will do everything I can to encourage and support these programs for disabled students.”

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (WI-D)
“Every student with a disability deserves access to a free public education that gives them the resources they need to succeed in school and beyond. I voted for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and support extending the act to make funding for special education mandatory. I also support full implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, particularly the measures on testing accommodation and preventing bullying and harassment. We need to make sure that the reports mandated in the act, like state reports on bullying, result in real changes that improve the learning environment for people with disabilities.

I also support the federal PROMISE grant program, which has helped young people with disabilities throughout Wisconsin connect with career opportunities. My opponent, on the other hand, has actually introduced legislation that would limit the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act in charter schools that receive taxpayer money.”


RespectAbility has asked all the candidates for Governor and Senator on both sides of the aisle to complete the same questionnaire. We will share responses from additional campaigns as we receive them.

The RespectAbility Report is a nonpartisan political commentary on the 2016 U.S. elections with a focus on disability issues. The RespectAbility Report has covered all of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president, senate and governor. Coverage can be found at The RespectAbility Report is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates.

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