We Remember: Education Update Exclusive Interviews
Senator Edward Kennedy: National Center for Learning Disabilities Awardee
Education Update: 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 special education?
Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy: 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 children.
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, Sen. 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 disabled child.
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 one-half 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 disabled.
EU: What is your opinion vis-à-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 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 important. So 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 that?
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 student.
Unfortunately, the 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 G.E.A.R. U.P. and T.R.I.O. 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 that number. #