In my past lawyer-life, I helped kids fight to find the lives they deserved. I worked hard to help them assert their rights and establish lives that kept them safe, healthy, and happy. In that role, I met a lot of children with special needs. Some of those needs were so serious, they required extensive accommodations for their education—in or out of the school building. They needed transportation, new classrooms, better lesson plans, certain equipment, or a different setting. There was a time when those kids wouldn’t have gotten any of that from the public school system. There was a time when kids were allowed to be excluded from classrooms, according the federal government, based on their disabilities.
That time was 1974.
In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed. It established that any school receiving federal funds must provide equal access to education for all children in its district, regardless of a child’s special needs. Before that, states or districts could provide help if they wanted, but parents and schools could determine it was just not worth it. Let’s sit with that for a bit. Any parent or school administrator could decide that it just wasn’t worth it to educate a child. And then not do it. That was considered acceptable.
In 1990, that Act became what we now use—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. It included what was in the previous law and a few more important things, like educational services for infants and toddlers and the creation of individualized education plans for kids who need them. That was the law I used for my clients. I stood on it all the time. I used it to get them the classrooms they needed, the bus they needed, the teachers they needed. I used it to get kids into special education programs and out of them. Let me tell you, school systems are hard to manage. It’s difficult to convince busy principals and even busier teachers to spend extra time and money on one child, especially one that might be a challenge. It’s good to have a federal law to back you up. It helps.
The Children’s Defense Fund helped make that law a reality. Back in 1974, the group was fighting for children who didn’t get these rights. And guess who was doing it with them? Hillary Clinton. After graduating law school, she went to work for the group. She met with kids across Massachusetts, so the organization could document how many of them should have been but were not in school. She did what I did. She drove from home to home, checking on whether these kids were getting what they deserved. In doing that, she worked to build a law I used nearly every day as a lawyer. In 1974, she was helping to build the platform I stood on for my clients—kids who needed a bit more from all of us, and who, born 50 years earlier, wouldn’t have been entitled to it.
Just to compare, in 1974, Donald Trump was working for his father’s real estate company and fighting a discrimination case from the Justice Department. He was accused of refusing to rent apartments to minority applicants. He settled the case, but his firm didn’t stop the discrimination, so the case was reopened.
One of those definitely sounds better than the other. I’m going to vote for the person who, even over 40 years ago, was fighting to establish better and broader rights for Americans, not the person who was using discriminatory business practices to violate them.