Fifteen years ago, as partisan politics was becoming the norm, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords took a principled stand—and sided with the disability community.
Jim Jeffords, a former VT senator who single-handedly tipped the balance of power in the Senate when he left the Republican Party to become an Independent in June 2001, died the morning of Monday, August 18. He was 80 years old. Mr. Jeffords, who served three terms in the Senate after spending 14 years in the House, was born in Rutland, VT and was the son of a chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. He was first elected to Congress in 1974.
Throughout his tenure in Congress, Jeffords championed legislation to strengthen our nation's education system and improve education for individuals with disabilities. Jeffords official biography reads: “He left his fingerprints on every piece of education, job training, and disability legislation over the past quarter-century. In 1975, Senator Jeffords, as the ranking member on the subcommittee on select education, co-authored what would later be known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which has provided equal access to education for millions of students with disabilities. Since IDEA's enactment, Senator Jeffords continued to fight for full federal funding for the law.”
It was President George W. Bush's opposition to funding IDEA that led to Jefford’s leaving the GOP in 2001. In his book, My Declaration of Independence, Jeffords insisted his departure from the GOP came down to Senate Republicans refusing to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which Jeffords helped pass as a freshman House member back in 1975. "I decided to winnow down my list of spending priorities to this one," Jeffords wrote. "It seemed to me the most fruitful avenue, in part because it was the most Republican." Jeffords went on to explain that IDEA required state and local governments to mainstream children with disabilities in public schools to ensure that IDEA would not become an "unfunded mandate"—a federal directive requiring state governments to do something, but not providing enough funding to the states to actually get the job done.
At the time, the federal government pledged to pick up 40 percent of the cost of IDEA, but when they didn't deliver as promised Jeffords held his ground and demanded full funding. The chasm between Jeffords and other Republicans grew. Within months, Jeffords became an Independent, the balance of power in the Senate tilted toward the Democrats, and Jeffords pushed an amendment sponsored by Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Hagel to fully fund IDEA. In the end, Jeffords, who was originally signed on as a sponsor of the legislation, ended up voting against IDEA because of his fear that the diluted version of the legislation would do more harm than good.
In a speech to Middlebury College in February 2003, Jeffords was quoted as saying: “I was the ranking member on a subcommittee that dealt with the problems with disabilities, and it was an opportunity for us to understand the horrors of the nation at that time with young people that had disabilities. It was terrible. We said the federal government should provide 40 percent of the funds for the local schools. It’s somewhere around 14 percent now. This is horrible. This is the constitutional right of these children to have a free and appropriate education. We have to keep fighting.”
In his farewell to the Senate delivered on September 27, 2006, Jeffords again underscored his commitment to ensuring children with disabilities and the families of such children gain access to a free appropriate public education and in improving educational results for children with disabilities. Said Jeffords: “Probably the biggest and the most rewarding challenge for me has been in the area of education. From my first year in the House when we enacted the Education of the Handicapped Act, to work that continues today on the Higher Education Act, I have tried to do my best to ensure that every child is given the opportunity to reach his or her potential.”
That certainly included students with disabilities.
“For more than four decades, Senator Jeffords was a champion for people with disabilities,” said former NCD Executive Director and Chairperson, Lex Frieden. “In addition to his legislative legacy on education, the pioneering advocacy of Senator Jeffords also improved medical and vocational rehabilitation for millions and helped establish the framework for the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The National Council on Disability applauds the life and legacy of Senator Jim Jeffords and his stalwart commitment to the disability community that he demonstrated during his political career. Our condolences to his colleagues and family members.
Rest in peace.