Countdown to Equity: Mothers, educators and unions put the Department of Education on a 90-day notice to address racial inequities in public education

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Fulfill the Promise

A coalition of educators and mothers of students with disabilities from cities across the country — Austin, Los Angeles, Oakland, Madison, Milwaukee and Boston — filed a legal petition today with the US Department of Education, seeking to quickly repair the damage of dismantled civil rights protections sustained through the DeVos/Trump years and to rebuild the Department of Education under President Biden and Secretary Cardona.


As we go from global pandemic to recovery in our schools, the time is now for the federal government to fulfill the promise made in 1975 to America’s students to fund IDEA at 40% and to provide a free and appropriate education and evaluation of unique learning needs for all students with disabilities. The filing, known as a “Class Petition for Guidance,” starts a 90-day countdown for the federal government to respond with meaningful guidance on how school districts can meet the educational needs of students of color with disabilities. They include: 

  • Guidance to meet student needs such as the backlog of IEP evaluations, social and emotional needs, trauma related needs, and the needs of English-language learners with disabilities and students of color with disabilities.
  • Guidance regarding how to safely provide in-person close-contact special education services while also complying with necessary COVID-19 health and safety protocols to protect a population of students that may be especially susceptible to infection and death.
  • Guidance to ensure that American Rescue Plan Act funds are spent in equitable ways to assist students with disabilities and students with mental health needs.
  • Commitment to improving enforcement protocols and boosting the government’s oversight capacity to monitor shortcomings and prevent further systematic problems.

Martha Siravo is a single mother from Milwaukee. Her daughter, Jasmine, is eight years old. Jasmine has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that provides support for her cerebral palsy and epilepsy diagnosis. Because Martha sustained a spinal cord injury back in 2002 and uses a manual wheelchair, prior to last year she would not have been able to access Jasmine’s classroom on the second floor to volunteer or assist when Jasmine had epileptic seizures if not for an elevator that had been installed 3 years ago. 

“I fight for inclusive education. I am part of this work because every student is unique and is deserving of a public education that is built to accommodate their individual needs,” Siravo said.  

The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the ways in which students of color with disabilities have been profoundly and disproportionately negatively impacted by the decades’ long failure of the federal government to fulfill its promises. 


Tiffany Gardner is a Los Angeles mother of three and a hard-working pharmacy technician. She has a 12-year-old son named Isaiah who is an LAUSD student with an IEP. Isaiah was born with chronic lung disease, an encephalocele, which is a protrusion of the skull into the brain, cleft palate, and Dandy-Walker syndrome—a congenital brain malformation. 


Since remote learning began, the only service Isaiah receives is occupational therapy. Isaiah’s special education classes are not adaptive to his legal deafness and do not include ASL translation or a transcript, and the school does not have a speech pathologist.

“As a mother of an African American student, I've seen first hand how students like my son have been profoundly and disproportionately negatively impacted by the decades-long failure of congress to fulfill its promise,” Gardner said.

Unions joined by the parent petitioners are: Oakland Education Association, Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Madison Teachers Inc.,  United Teachers Los Angeles, Education Austin and Boston Teachers Union.


The unique parent and educator coalition, supported by disability rights organizations and bolstered by a groundbreaking report: “Disabling Inequity: The Urgent Need for Race-Conscious Resources and Remedies, published yesterday by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the Civil Rights Project, UCLA.  The coalition aims to get the Department of Education to follow through on promises made to students with disabilities under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 1975 as well as to ensure the needs of students who are only eligible for supports and services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, along with support for students who have been traumatized during the pandemic.


WHO: Mothers of students from across the country with emotional, intellectual and physical differences, including ADHD, epilepsy,  autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and oppositional defiant disorder, will give powerful personal stories; Additional speakers include: Lisa Demidovich, lead attorney on the petition. In addition, Dan Losen, Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the Civil Rights Project, UCLA, will speak to his organization's report “Disabling Inequity: The Urgent Need for Race-Conscious Resources and Remedies,” which will be submitted along with the Class Administrative Petition on Tuesday. Diane Smith, Senior Staff Attorney with the National Disability Rights Network will also speak on the Disabling Inequity report, featured in Monday’s Washington Post story. 


MEDIA: Key press materials will be provided during the press conference. The program will include both English and Spanish speakers and will include a media Q and A.


Quotes on Petition


Becky Pringle NEA President. “Every crisis we face as educators hits students with disabilities hardest, particularly students of color with disabilities who were already facing systematic barriers to their success including the longstanding failure to fund special education.  The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened those longstanding inequities.  I could not be prouder of these NEA educators demanding the support and resources their students deserve. We will continue to demand the full funding that our students with disabilities need to learn and grow and thrive. We must do this for our students with disabilities who are served under IDEA, but especially for the disproportionate number of our Black, Brown and Indigenous students, and students from marginalized neighborhoods—these are the students who are most vulnerable to

the harm that comes from funding shortages."



Candace Cortelia, Director, The Advocacy Institute. “This friendly petition will assist the U.S. Department of Education in its efforts to ensure the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic are addressed, by requesting concrete guidance focused on properly identifying and delivering supports for students with disabilities.”


Cecily Myart-Cruz, UTLA President. “The pandemic has highlighted the need for a healthy, healing, racially just vision of public education. Students of color with disabilities have been profoundly and disproportionately negatively impacted by the decades’ long failure of the federal government to fulfill its promises. Widespread trauma from the mass infection and death in our hardest-hit communities of color compounds the need for additional supports for mental and behavioral health for many students. UTLA is excited to work alongside parents, disability rights advocates, and educators’ unions across the country in fighting to fulfill the promise to our students with disabilities.”


Dan Losen, Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the Civil Rights Project, UCLA: CCRR is heartened by the efforts of multiple unions and advocates seeking a remedy to the widespread failure to protect the needs of students of color with disabilities, including their right to adequate mental and behavioral health supports and services -- failure which is apparent from the racially disparate and excessive levels of discipline and school-policing that are highlighted in our descriptive report covering every district in the nation. Readers of our report will see how the school children that have been hit hardest by the pandemic are the same ones that were experiencing stark inequities in educational opportunity pre-pandemic, so we hope that the petition brings added attention and resources from the federal government to comprehensively address these overlooked injustices."


Diane Smith Howard, Managing Attorney for Criminal and Juvenile Justice, on CCRR’s Disabling Equity report. “Children with disabilities were pushed out of school at disproportionate rates before the pandemic began.  This important new report shows how these inequities will continue and likely worsen as children return to school post pandemic.”


Gloria Martinez, a 20-year educator in both special education and general education and United Teachers Los Angeles Vice President. “I want to let my fellow educators across America know that the promise made to districts to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at 40% is no longer your burden to carry. Today we call on Congress and President Biden to make good on IDEA and Fulfill the Promise to our students with disabilities.  Everyone wins when adults keep their promises to our students.  To President Biden and both chambers of Congress, I challenge you to make magic happen, just the way my colleagues make it happen day in and day out.”


Lisa Demidovich, lead attorney on the petition for guidance. “Fall 2021 brings one of the biggest challenges ever experienced in public education: students who have been away from the classroom for over a year returning full-time impacted by trauma from the pandemic’s devastation, felt hardest in communities of color.  Last week, Secretary Cardona encouraged districts to spend American Rescue Plan funds on strategies to meet the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students most impacted by the pandemic.  We agree with the priority, but how do districts make that happen by the Fall? Through this class petition for guidance, the Coalition requests the Department: issue meaningful guidance regarding how these one-time funds can be directed to support students of color with disabilities, immediately reinstate Obama era civil rights enforcement initiatives, and expand the data being collected so the Department and the public can monitor whether districts and states are managing those public funds equitably.”


Randi Weingarten, AFT President. “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our students is massive. It’s clear that in particular, students of color, Latinx and Native American students with disabilities have suffered mightily. For too many, their needs are simply not being met – they can’t access the individualized education plans designed for them, they haven’t received additional support with remote learning technology, and the response to their trauma, all too often, is discipline instead of support. What’s worse, the shortage of dedicated special education support personnel is leaving far too many of these students to fend for themselves. This failure was an issue pre-COVID, but now, it’s a true, unacceptable crisis that leaves our most vulnerable students behind. It violates the fundamental American promise to educate every child in this country equitably, regardless of their geography, demography or ability, and it requires immediate action. This 90-day petition for guidance is a much-needed pathway for students, families and educators, as we move from global pandemic to recovery in our nation’s schools.”