The Lincoln Center, a special education branch of Wyandotte Public Schools, recently posted a fundraising initiative on GoFundMe in pursuit of assistive educational technologies for their students with cognitive impairments, autism spectrum disorders, and emotional impairments. The posting, which expressed a “desperate need” for assistive learning and communication devices, has raised both support and criticism from the public—while some applaud The Lincoln Center’s staff for taking budgeting matters into their own hands, many others consider The Lincoln Center’s grassroots fundraising campaign to be a passive reaction to a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The fundraiser has currently reached only a fraction of its $50,000 goal.

In his posting on GoFundMe, Shawn Patterson from The Lincoln Center points to mounting staff costs and Detroit’s failing economy as the primary reasons the school cannot afford assistive educational technologies. In the face of a stagnant economy and budget restrictions within the district, he explains the challenges of adequately educating students whose cognitive, emotional, and developmental challenges preclude them from learning without the aid of more advanced technologies.

Critics of the fundraising campaign point to our country’s laws regarding special education supports. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all United States school districts are obligated to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to all students eligible for special education. As mandated by federal regulations, a FAPE must be

“provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge,” “meet the standards of the State educational agency,” “include an appropriate…school education in the State involved,” and function according to “the individualized education program required under…this title.”

Additionally, all special needs students are guaranteed any related services necessary to receive a sufficient education. “Related services” constitute as any services or supports necessary to allow a student to benefit from his or her individualized special education program, including transportation, assistive technologies, communication devices, psychological services, and more. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the standards of a free appropriate public education are designed to comprehensively address disabled students’ unique needs and design education plans accordingly.

A number of supporters for the GoFundMe initiative praise The Lincoln Center for taking advantage of social-media based grassroots fundraising for the benefits of its students, but for scores of special education advocates, parents, teachers, and students across Michigan, The Lincoln Center’s GoFundMe initiative highlights a much broader inadequacy of public special education funding within the state and the country. One Michigan special education advocate, Marcie Lipsitt of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education, has already contacted U.S. Assistant Secretary Michael Yudin, OSEP Director Melody Musgrove, Michigan Superintendent Michael Flanagan, Michigan Director of un-Special Ed Teri Johnson, and a number of news publications in protest. Handfuls of others are following in her footsteps.

Regardless of the support and criticism this specific issue is receiving, one issue stands alone—thousands of the parents and teachers of special education students are pressured to take on the costs of purchasing expensive assistive devices for the use of their children in the classroom. Perhaps, then, The Lincoln Center’s fundraising mission raises a different question altogether—as the assistive technologies used to augment special education programs develop and become more expensive, how will state funding plans adapt? While we, of course, applaud the hard work and personal sacrifices made by the parents, teachers, and educational professionals working directly with special needs students, most agree that funding should not have to come from the pockets of these individuals. The Lincoln Center’s fundraising campaign and Detroit’s economic climate stand as a symbol for districts around the country. The issue makes it evident that, more than ever, we need to reevaluate our special education budget plans in accordance with the new assistive technologies available to students.

Advocates like Marcie Lipsitt will almost certainly be more efficient in securing state and federal funds for special needs technology by directly contacting the public officials in control of budgeting and planning. From this perspective, the Lincoln Center’s Initiative is, perhaps, more dangerous than it appears—by executing a successful grassroots fundraiser, The Lincoln Center proves they are able to fund the educations and related services of special needs students without the full aid of government funding. But if measures like The Lincoln Center’s GoFundMe project succeed in putting assistive technologies into special needs schools, should we encourage further self-sufficient school funding projects? There seems to be a tenuous balance between advocating for federal and state special education funding and securing the necessary educational materials for our special needs students.

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