United (?) States of America

I watched last night’s presidential debate between Romney and Obama and I was most interested in the questions regarding the role of government. I would like to see much more detailed discussion on that particular area even though overall I thought the debate had more content than any presidential debate I never seen.

What is of particular interest to me is that Romney and the Republicans and even their American Idol Ronald Reagan and always wanted to pass things from the federal government down to the states. You may recall during the Reagan years they invented something called block grants where they would take federal money, give it to the states, and let the states develop their programs on their own. While even Obama has turned over some responsibilities to the states he seems to take an approach where the government comes up with what it believes is the best plan and administers it for the states but then if the states can come up with a concrete proposal that will achieve the same goals then he gives them the flexibility to opt out and do that. Philosophically that’s much different than just dumping the problem in the lap of the states.

A specific example is that Romney says that under his Romney Care that pre-existing conditions would be covered. That’s not exactly accurate. Obama pointed out that under Romney’s proposals people who were insured would have to be given the option to keep their insurance but those people who are currently uninsured because of pre-existing conditions would not be covered under Romney Care. Today one day after the debate one of Romney’s own aides admitted under questioning from reporters that people who are currently uncovered because of pre-existing conditions would have to rely on their own individual state to pass a mandate that carriers had to cover pre-existing conditions. You know… Like Massachusetts death under Romney.

This and many other issues where the Republicans tout the idea of “let the states do it” have always been troublesome for me. That’s because I thought I lived in the United States of America. I shouldn’t have to worry about which state that I happen to reside in order to get the government services that I need. Why should people in rich states with good tax bases have great programs while those in poor states who cannot afford to meet all of the needs of their population have to suffer? Why do I need to move from state to state just to find someplace that has the kind of programs that all Americans deserve.

A prime example of this idea that local control isn’t always the best thing is what happened as I was growing up and needing to go to school. I was fortunate enough to live in Indianapolis where they had an excellent special education school called James E Roberts School IPS #97. It had been built in the mid-1930s to deal with all the physically handicapped kids who were appearing because of the polio epidemic. So living inside the IPS district, I was eligible to go to what at the time was a model of phenomenal special education programs. Unfortunately my cousin Nancy who was also handicapped lived in Lawrence Township just outside the IPS limits. In those days there was no special education anywhere in Indiana except for Indianapolis and Gary. Anyone else outside those areas had to have homebound tutors were provided by the district and/or the state. But they did not have the opportunity to go to school with other kids or to receive any of the social interaction benefits of going to school.

So when Nancy was school-age, my aunt and uncle had to sell their house and move into IPS district so that my cousin could go to school. Yet there were those in the legislature and in the general public who screamed loudly and often that they did not want any state regulation of local school districts. They would say things like “We know what’s best for our kids in our district and we don’t want the state or God forbid the federal government telling us what to do here in our little school district.” So my aunt and uncle and cousin packed everything up and moved out of their little school district that thought it knew what was best for kids and moved into IPS just so that Nancy could get a decent education.

Throughout the 1960s my mother participated in an organization known as COVOH (Council Of Volunteers and Organizations for the Handicapped). This was a grassroots coalition of groups representing a wide variety of disabilities who came together to lobby the state legislature to mandate special-education programs throughout the entire State of Indiana. Rather than individual disability organizations each working on their own to get special programs for their own people, they grouped together in this coalition and their combined voices convinced the legislature that we needed special-education throughout the state. It always seemed strange to me that we had to pass a special law to get this accomplished because the Constitution of the State of Indiana already mandated that all children in the state be provided a “free and appropriate public school education”. One can hardly argue that a homebound teacher that isolates an already isolated child was an appropriate way to provide them with an education.

Finally in 1968 Indiana passed “The Mandatory Special Education Act” which mandated that every school district throughout the state provide special-education programs for their students regardless of disability. It allowed for smaller school districts to combine with their neighbors to have co-ops of special ed if they cannot manage to have a special ed program of their own. Because these other school districts were starting from scratch they used a different model of special education than the one that was used at good old Roberts school. In the mid-1930s when Roberts was built, the idea of lumping people altogether for a special purpose apart from the mainstream was considered normal. Of course I’m talking about forcing black children to go to their own schools apart from whites. But then in the 1950s was the Supreme Court case Brown vs. the Board Of Education which clearly stated that “separate but equal” was unachievable. It’s ironic that Robert school was the most racially integrated school in the entire district but it was the most segregated when it came to disable versus able-bodied. Anyone who had even the slightest thing wrong with them such as asthma or a mild heart condition was shipped off to the special school so that the local school didn’t have to deal with it. It wasn’t just people like me and Nancy who were in wheelchairs or who had obvious and significant physical difficulties. But in the 1960s when you’re starting from scratch to build special ed you understand that separate is not equal and so the vast majority of the special ed programs developed throughout the states used some form of what was called mainstreaming.

This meant that even if you had to ride the short bus (to use the cliché) to the special school for special education the special ed program was provided in the same building as a regular school. That way those kids who did not need a lot of special attention could attend regular classes with the able-bodied kids. And only the most severely disabled children who perhaps had multiple handicaps including physical and mental handicaps combined would have to remain in a special ed room with the resources necessary to meet their needs. Even if they were isolated in such a room, there was still the opportunity for interaction with the general population of students. They were still part of the community yet their needs were being met. The idea of shipping them off to one school that was handicapped only just didn’t meet the new standard of “separate can’t be equal”. So while Robert school was a pioneer in the early days, once the mandatory act had passed, Roberts was dragging behind.

When I got to high school, only those students who absolutely needed an accessible facility and some resources to help them, continued to attend Roberts. Anyone else who could possibly go to regular school did so. But that meant the entire high school (all four years worth) consisted of about 30 students. There were only two teachers in the high school. They had to teach an entire high school curriculum between the two of them. In order to do so, our six-hour days were divided into twelve, 30 minute periods. Class would consist of three or four students sitting around a table at the front of the room with the teacher while the rest of us sat around the perimeter of the room with our desks facing the wall as we attempted to study while there was a class going on in the same room. I suffered through that my freshman year but in my sophomore year all of my classes ended up being in the morning. I had no classes scheduled after lunch so that meant I would be in class all morning, then lunch, and then sit and do nothing for three hours every day. Meanwhile out in the Township schools as the mandatory act was being implemented, disabled kids were going to regular high schools and attending classes with their able-bodied friends. Roberts was a clear example that separate was not equal.

So my mother arranged for me to be able to attend my local neighborhood high school Northwest High School for half of the day and to attend Robert school the other half. In those days Northwest did not have an elevator and there were certain classes that I would not be able to take on the second floor. While it might have been easy enough to move a history class or in English class from upstairs to downstairs, some programs such as the science labs could not be moved. There really was no way I could attend Northwest full-time. So the wheelchair bus would pick me up in the morning, take me to Roberts for a few classes, mom would then drive me 7 miles from Roberts to Northwest in the middle of the day, and then the bus would bring me from Northwest home the end of the day.

My cousin Nancy had a different solution. She lived very near the border between Manual High School which was IPS and Perry Meridian High School which was Perry Township. Perry Township special ed was integrated into their regular high school program and so they arranged to have the Perry bus pick her up and take her across the school boundary line to attend regular high school at Perry rather than Roberts. Had she not been able to work out that situation, my aunt and uncle would have again possibly faced having to pick up their roots and move to yet another district just so that Nancy could get a quality education.

We were lucky to have Robert school when most of the state and most of the country didn’t have such a facility. We were lucky to have the mandatory special education act that allowed Indiana kids to receive a quality special-education alongside their able-bodied classmates. It wasn’t until a few years later that the federal government finally caught up to us and passed Public Law 94-142 which was a federal version of the Mandatory Special Education Act. That way people in other states that have the same benefits that we had here in Indianapolis and Indiana.

Inequities still exists between school districts mostly because of the funding mechanism. Here in Indiana schools are mostly paid for by property taxes. So the Township districts which have broad tax bases have more money to spend while the inner cities schools that have poor tax bases suffer for lack of funds and facilities. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at the Republican National Convention and said that the quality of one’s education should not depend upon where they are living. I only wish that the rest of her Republican counterparts felt that strongly. Education is one of the primary issues which Romney says should be handled almost exclusively at the state and local level and that the federal government should have minimal if any role in education. I wonder how long it would have taken every state in the union to pass a mandatory special education act if the federal government had not passed 94-142 when it did.

So you can imagine that every time I hear things like “let the states take care of it” or “the states know best”, I have to wonder how many people end up moving from state to state just so that they can get the programs that they need to survive and to participate fully in society. Whether it’s quality healthcare, the right to marry whom you wish to marry, or a whole variety of issues, the real question that were being asked in this election is this…

Do we live in the United States of America or are we just a loose confederation of states?

If it’s the latter then you have to hope that your state or local government is as sympathetic to the needs of its constituents as is the nation as a whole. I hope that I live in the UNITED States of American where good ideas can be applied to everyone in the country.

This nation had a choice in the 1860s between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. The United States won. I just hope Mr. Romney and Republicans keep that in mind when they want to disassemble our federal government and dump everything on the states. And I will be remembering it when I vote this November.

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