Senator Edward Kennedy:
National Center for Learning Disabilities Awardee
Update (EU): The Kennedy Family has been involved
in helping children with special needs for many decades including
the Special Olympics. How did you first become involved in
Edward (Ted) Kennedy (TK): My family became particularly
committed to children with disabilities and their families
because of our sister Rosemary, who had mental retardation.
In many ways, she still had real potential and my parents did
their best to see that she could develop as much as possible.
But it was obvious to all of us that millions of others had
no such opportunities. Disabled children deserve a good education
and opportunities to play and compete in sports.
EU: What special education organizations and causes have you
been affiliated with over the years?
TK: When we talk about special education, in addition to the
child, the most important people in the discussion are parents
and teachers. They are the ones who get up each morning to
help special needs children be the best they can. The organizations
and the individuals that represent teachers and families are
my strongest partners and the best allies for special needs
EU: Is there any legislation that you have worked on or that
you plan to work on to help special needs children?
TK: The most important
pending legislation in this Congress is the Family Opportunity
Act. For more than five years, Senator Grassley and I have
been committed to this legislation to give parents of disabled
children the opportunity to purchase Medicaid coverage for
their children. Under current law, we leave families of severely
disabled children with only three choices: to get Medicaid?
stay poor, or worst of all, give up custody of your child?
so they can qualify for the health care that meets their
child’s medical needs.
Families deserve more
support than that. We should be able to buy into Medicaid?it’s
the only insurance plan that covers health care for a severely
EU: What work still remains to be done?
TK: The greatest special
education challenge facing us today is how to help disabled
students make a successful transition after high school.
Five years after a child leaves special education today,
only 50 percent of them are working or in continuing education.
Over their age span, less than 1?2 of 1 percent of people
with disabilities work. We need to change those outcomes
and make more opportunities available for these children
when the school bus doesn’t come anymore.
Higher education shouldn’t have a glass ceiling for
qualified people with disabilities. We need better high school
programs that include these talented people, even if they’re
EU: What is your
opinion vis a vis “No Child Left Behind” for
special needs children?
TK: We were right to
include disabled students in the Act’s
accountability provisions. Schools have to recognize that all
children can learn?it’s
just a matter of understanding how they learn and how to teach
that learning. For years, they’ve have been victims of
low expectations and lumped together as low achievers. With
the right reforms, their academic achievement will improve,
and so will their opportunities for productive lives. Special
education students and their teachers should never again be
left out and left behind.
EU: Can you enumerate
some of the issues you have fought for to improve the lives
of our nation’s families?
TK: Better education and better health are two of the most
is civil rights. One
recent example is an amendment that I offered to the Senate
budget resolution to add $5 billion to maintain funding for
education and expand student aid for college students. The
President’s budget would cut education and provide no
increase in student aid. It’s a battle royal in Congress.
EU: Have you ever
received any other “special education” awards?
If so, what were they?
TK: The award closest to my heart was the one I received from
special needs children and their families for the work we do
everyday to make their world a better place.
EU: From your perspective as a father and an uncle, what advice
would you give to parents about obtaining an excellent education
for their children?
TK: Get involved with the schools your children attend and
try to be part of the decision-making process. Education is
the key to the American Dream. Fifty
years ago, people with high school degrees?and even those who
dropped out of high school?had the chance for good jobs. Today
they require greater education. The benefits of a college degree
are immense. Over a lifetime of earnings, the average college
graduate makes over a million dollars more than a high school
graduate. I urge every young person I meet to work hard in
school and go on to college, so they’ll have the opportunities
they deserve in life.
EU: Who were your mentors? Who inspired you to go into politics?
TK: My family has been the greatest inspiration in my life. I
suppose politics and public service are in my genes, since
both my grandfathers were so active. Certainly my brothers
were a constant inspiration. Actually, as the youngest in a
family of eleven, I had ten mentors growing up. In recent years,
my sisters Eunice and Jean have inspired me as well through
their work in Special Olympics and Very Special Arts.
EU: Are there any early educational experiences or anecdotes
that you would like to share with our readers?
TK: One of my fondest
childhood memories involves Longfellow’s
famous poem, Paul Revere’s Ride. My mother was the finest
teacher I ever had, because she took advantage of every opportunity
to teach all her children about the things that would be most
important in their lives. She felt that Longfellow’s
poem was the perfect way for me to learn about poetry and history
at the same time. She
coached me to memorize the full poem and recite it?all 130
lines. Still today, I love to take friends to Old North Church
in Boston to point out the tower where two historic lanterns
were hung by a friend as the signal that British troops were
making their move by sea and not by land and the American Revolution
was about to start.
EU: One of the hallmarks
of your career has been to improve the nation’s schools
and colleges. What are some of the best ways we can accomplish
TK: In 2002, we took a positive step by passing the No Child
Left Behind Act. For the first time, we created a way to enable
schools to see that every child succeeds-black, white, Hispanic,
disabled, immigrant, rich or poor. We also committed to ensuring
a highly-qualified teacher in every classroom. The law holds
schools accountable for achieving reasonable goals for each
Administration and the Republican leadership in Congress
haven’t been willing to adequately fund the
Act. We need to change that. Money is not the only answer,
but it is a crucial part of the answer.
We also need to do more to help families struggling to afford
to send their children to college. We can do this by increasing
student aid and by promoting student support programs like
the GEAR UP and TRIO programs, which help high school students
prepare for and learn about college. We also need to do more
to help students once they are in college. Too few students
complete their degree. We need to do all that we can to improve