The confirmation of Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education raises questions among faculty at schools across the nation about how to organize to protect public education. For many special education teachers in particular, the threat of widespread cuts to public schools is particularly urgent.
Betsy DeVos is a champion of school privatization and advocate of dismantling public education, and she confidently and aggressively plans to pursue these goals.
US special education departments have long suffered from ableist policy and funding practices, which are part and parcel of the neoliberal assault on public schools — in which students with disabilities are always the ones thrown under the bus.
DeVos, who openly opposes a federal guarantee of free and appropriate education to students with disabilities, appears poised to further ravage these services.
But it’s not only teachers who are hungry to defend students most victimized by ongoing attacks on special education. During the 2016 walkout by Boston Public School students, thousands of young activists and working-class families raised the demand for full funding for disability programing alongside a broader demand for well-funded public schools.
The current resistance to Trump has demonstrated the readiness of ordinary people to stage effective opposition to systemic injustice of all kinds. From the massive demonstrations for women’s rights to the pro-immigrant, anti-Islamophobia protests staged at airports across the nation, these mobilizations have shown that hundreds of thousands of people are invested in opposing oppression and fighting for a more just society.
We have an opportunity to tap into this momentum and harness the energy of this resistance to simultaneously oppose the DeVos agenda and bring the struggle against disability oppression to the forefront of the movement for education justice.
In order to achieve this, we have to examine the nature of disability oppression and how the disenfranchisement of students with disabilities in the US education system is wedded to a broad assault on public services for working-class people.
Their “Disability” and Ours
A socialist approach to fighting disability oppression starts with the “social model of disability,” which identifies disability oppression — like all other forms of oppression — as rooted in the way our society is organized. Exclusion and discrimination toward people with physical or mental differences are not a natural consequence of human nature; impairments exist in a context where exclusion and discrimination based on impairment are permitted.
Under capitalism, the labor market and the organization of work are key components in the construction of disability as a social category. Inherent in the ideology and practice of capitalism is the idea that a person’s well-being is dependent on their ability to sell their labor for a wage.
Thus, physical and mental differences that preclude or interfere with performing wage labor are considered central to very condition of “disability.” The Social Security Administration of the United States plainly states on its website, “You cannot do work…This is a strict definition of disability.”
This definition of disability is absurd, defined only by one’s ability to make profits for a boss. We should recognize a definition of disability that includes all those who experience oppression as a consequence of impairment.
Although the state does provide benefits for some people with disabilities, disability welfare in severely limited in accordance to the “principle of less eligibility,” the idea that any assistance to the unemployed must be limited to an amount less than the wages of the poorest workers — to ensure that disability payments don’t undercut employers paying poverty wages. )
In the realm of education, there are parallels to the federal definition of disability and how it is used to regulate labor markets and access to social services. One aspect of the criteria for diagnosing a student with a learning disability (and thus qualifying them for special education services) is the determination that a student “does not make adequate progress to meet age or grade-level standards.”
Within the US education system — the primary function of which is to reproduce the American workforce — students with disabilities are defined as those whose performance is not in line with state standards for college and career-readiness or those who require additional or individualized educational resources to meet those standards.
When teachers ask, “Why is it always kids with disabilities who are first to be thrown under the bus?” the dismaying answer is that the character of schooling in the United States has always reflected the needs of capitalism rather than any kind of humanistic value in bettering people’s lives.
When advances to special education services have been won in the past, it has not been due to the benevolence of those who manage the state deciding to hand down reforms for the benefit of students with special needs.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), for example, was won thanks to the struggle waged from below by civil rights activists and advocates of the Independent Living movement, who put forward a radical perspective on the politics of disablement and exposed masses of ordinary to a critique of ableism for the first time.
Unfortunately, protections won under IDEA legislation have not been enough to defend the interests of students with disabilities in public education. Students with severe disabilities have become increasingly vulnerable as public education generally and special education policy in particular have been refashioned to reflect neoliberal priorities.
Preparing Special Needs Students to Fail
Neoliberalism is driven by the belief that the “free market” should coordinate all aspects of social life. So neoliberal measures include privatization of public institutions, the cutting of social services (because they led to “market distortions”), and attacks on labor unions (which frustrate “market efficiency”).
Privatization converts resources for public goods into private profits for corporations and their investors. This creates an incentive for advocates of neoliberal policy to set up public schools to fail, thus creating a justification for privatization. This, in turn, gives political leaders the opportunity to reward their friends and supporters in the private sector with contracts to run various aspects of the public school system.
The effective use of discrimination against special education students as a weapon against public education is particularly clear in the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act, passed during the George W. Bush administration.
In 2004, the IDEA Act — originally established to ensure the full inclusion of children with disabilities in public education — was revised to reflect alignment with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its practice of placing sanctions on districts with low academic performance.
Under NCLB, the standardized exams scores of students diagnosed with severe cognitive disabilities were for the first time held against districts in determining school ratings, which in turn affected schools’ access to funding. It wasn’t an oversight of NCLB that students with disabilities were unfairly assessed by standards that made no accommodation for their abilities. On the contrary, this was part of a carefully devised strategy that set up public schools to fail.
Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top (RTTT) program pushed the polices of NCLB into overdrive, much to the continued detriment of special education students. RTTT used the offer of additional grant money to incentivize states to adopt a set of common national standards and assessments, with test scores enshrined as the arbiter of student progress.
The program lacked any adapted standards and assessments to account for the cognitive diversity of students. RTTT deliberately set up special education students to fail, all under the guise of delivering them an “equal education.”
Schools whose special education departments cannot demonstrate proficiency on state-mandated standardized testing are now punished through low ratings that result in defunding and the implementation of “school-choice” programs. In a worst-case scenario, low-scoring schools can be taken into state receivership.
This is where education “reformers,” who represent the interests of neoliberal restructuring, step in and recommend that schools be converted to business-managed charter schools. Although charter schools promote themselves as open to all, their admissions processes often include screening students based on academic records, disciplinary history, and special needs.
This kind of screening serves two purposes: first, to limit admission to students who require the fewest resources and therefore are less costly to teach (i.e., neurotypical, able-bodied students); and second, to filter out students who are most likely to receive low scores on state testing (i.e., students with learning differences or cognitive disabilities).
Educating students with special needs thus becomes a pesky financial burden.
Built to Exclude
The exclusion and mistreatment of students with disabilities long predates the dismantling of public school districts or the rise of discriminatory charter schools.
However, it is a mistake to believe we can win better conditions for special needs students by setting higher goals for their performance on standardized exams or by abandoning the project of building public schools that are more inclusive.
We cannot fight for a vision of education justice that includes disability justice within the current neoliberal model of education, because that model was built to exclude special-needs students and to silence those that demand free, accessible, community-controlled schools that can genuinely serve children of all abilities.
As a result, we should focus our demand not on “equality” as defined by the proponents of the one-test-fits-all position, but on equity. Our side must put forward a vision of education that acknowledges diversity in learners and strives to give each child an education that is responsive to their unique needs.
This is not a vision of education that places lower expectations on special-education students because of the misconception that they are inherently low achievers. It is a vision that upholds the reality that there are a multitude of ways to acquire knowledge and express intelligence.
Refusal to acknowledge this reality harms students with learning differences in particular. Just ask an educator — the research is on our side with regard to this issue. Today at graduate programs for prospective teachers, pupils study the principles of universal design, Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences, and Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.
All the foundations of progressive pedagogy tell us that human learning is a social and creative process that different students will access through diverse modes of knowledge development. This clearly refutes the notion that schooling should be built around rigid inculcation with standardized content.
Building a movement for education justice that acknowledges diversity in the way children learn means demanding the freedom for educators to design and teach curricula responsive to the needs of their students. As it stands now, the teachers who are best trained to develop curriculum for students with special needs are rarely able to draw on this expertise because standardized testing creates significant pressure to “teach to the test.”
This is why it is critical to link demands for disability justice to demands raised by teachers unions: a stronger voice for educators in policy-making, education spending, and academic design are vital components of winning equitable education for students with disabilities.
One example of how the fight for disability justice can be waged in tandem with the education justice struggle is the “opt-out movement” — a collaborative effort in which teachers unions, parents, and students rally together under the slogan, “Less testing, more learning.”
The goal of this movement is to give parents and children both the right and the confidence to opt out of state standardized tests, and thus shift the education system away from a system designed to punish teachers, students, and schools that don’t perform well on high-stakes tests.
In 2016, more than 640,000 students across the United States refused to participate in these exams and simultaneously raised public consciousness about the harm that testing inflicts, particularly in communities of color. Advocates for disability justice should similarly see opt-out campaigns as platforms to voice demands that will advance the cause for equitable special education.
Likewise, the recent success of the “Save Our Public Schools” campaign in Massachusetts saw thousands of parents, students, and social-justice activists of all kinds stand with teachers unions in their call to vote against a ballot proposal that would drain billions of dollars from public schools to fund the expansion of charter schools.
“Save Our Public Schools” became the most widely publicized ballot question campaign in the history of the state, won tremendous public support, and successfully secured funding for public schools — all while educating voters about the role charter schools play in promoting a two-track system that discriminates against students with disabilities.
Beyond concrete protections for public special ed, the “Save Our Public Schools” campaign shows what can be achieved through fusing broad calls for social justice with the demands of teachers as well as the particular demands of students with disabilities.
Solidarity across social movements and between various struggles for justice will be required to win against Trump. The fact that the his agenda will pose a threat for all movements for liberation — feminist, disability rights, women, immigrants, Muslims, queer and trans people, working-class people, and many more — should signal to activists that fighting alone is neither preferable nor possible. One way we can build the fight for disability rights is to combat the ableism inherent in the project of privatizing education.
Our rallying cry should be unequivocal: education must be a human right for people of all mental and physical abilities. Education cannot be a means for generating private gain for massive corporations. Building a movement for schools that reflects this vision is one step toward the project of building a society that refuses the idea that our worth is dependent on our ability to produce profit — a society that would render obsolete the very basis for disability oppression.