The 74 Interview: Sen. Maggie Hassan on Moms in Congress, Advocating for Kids With Disabilities, and Special Ed & Classroom Innovation

Sen. Maggie Hassan (Sen. Hassan on Flickr)

See previous 74 interviews: Civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.

It was one of the most discussed exchanges of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s high-profile Senate confirmation hearing: New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan pressing the nominee on her belief that enforcing the rights of students with disabilities was a matter best left to the states.

After some back and forth, Hassan — an attorney by trade — called the question: Was DeVos aware that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was federal law?

“I may have confused it,” DeVos conceded.

“I have to say,” Hassan responded coolly, “I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it.”

To millions of parents, the significance of DeVos’s misstep was immediately apparent. One in seven U.S. children has a developmental disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and from the moment a child’s disability becomes known, families get a crash course in the body of law that protects their rights.

Advocating for a child with a disability is what propelled Hassan, 60, into public life in the first place. The older of her two children, 30-year-old Ben, can’t walk, use a keyboard, or speak more than single words. Hassan’s efforts to make sure he had as many of the same chances as her daughter was what eventually led to her appointment to New Hampshire’s Advisory Committee to the Adequacy in Education and Finance Commission.

From there, Hassan was recruited to run, first for the state Senate and later for statewide office. In 2013, she became New Hampshire’s second female governor, and three years later she defeated a female Republican incumbent to win her U.S. Senate seat. Hassan had been on the job for two weeks when DeVos’s hearing took place.

Hark back just a couple of election cycles, and the deck was even more stacked against female candidates than it is now. Mothers, in particular, were asked to navigate seemingly unwinnable optics: If their children were young, their desire to hold office was taken as evidence they were cold or un-nurturing. If they had older children, that meant they were a little long in the tooth themselves.

But in 2018, a record 112 women are serving in Congress, which raises the question: Is the experience of motherhood, particularly when it involves advocating for disadvantaged children, finally being recognized as a political asset?

The 74 asked Hassan to talk about her experience. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The 74: Mothering used to be a political liability; perhaps it still is. Yet it shapes so many of our perspectives and interest in public policy. At some point, your advocacy for Ben caused you to become politically active.

Hassan: Our son Ben was born in 1988. He is a very smart and funny and charming young man who happens to have very pervasive and severe physical disabilities. He has cerebral palsy. Very early on it became clear to Tom and I that if Ben were going to have the kind of childhood and future that we all want our children to have, we were going to need some extra help. We were very lucky that in our community in New Hampshire there were resources in the community and in the schools.

But it also became clear that if Ben were going to have the kind of experience in school we all want our kids to have, if he was going to have the kind of community supports, home care supports that he was going to need, we were going to need to advocate for them, just as many people who came before us had advocated.

I have a memory of when he went off to his first day of publicly funded preschool. A bus pulled into our driveway and lowered a wheelchair support and we wheeled Ben on the bus. I realized he was going to have a chance to go to school and make friends and learn just the way other kids were able to do.

That didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of the champions and advocates who went before us. So, as his life unfolded, I found myself needing to advocate not only at the local level, but also at the state level around budget issues.

And then I became an appointee on a commission to look at education financing issues. I was tasked with representing in particular the viewpoint of a mom of a child with disabilities and of a child without disabilities.

Was that the launch of your public policy career?

Over the course of the work of the commission, I met a lot of state legislators, and when at the eleventh hour in 2002 a state Senate seat became open, I was asked to run for that seat. I thought it would be a good way to continue the work I had been doing on Ben’s behalf and on behalf of other children like him.

I lost that race, but then won in 2004 and entered the state Senate. That led to my decision to run for governor, and after that to serve in the U.S. Senate.

A couple of months ago, when Sen. Tammy Duckworth carried her newborn onto the Senate floor for a vote, Sen. Orrin Hatch asked, “What if there were 10 babies in the Senate?” What do you think would happen if there were 10 babies in the Senate?

One could only hope. That would mean we would be approaching the kind of representation not only of women, but of young parents in general in the United States Senate that might add and broaden the perspectives that are represented.

Do you think that having more mothers in Congress and more open discussion of motherhood would change federal education policy?

It would change federal education policy and a number of other areas of policy as well. It is always important to have a variety of perspectives at the decision-making table. We know from research that when there are more perspectives — gender perspectives, perspectives people bring because perhaps they are members of minority groups, including individuals who experience disabilities — we make better decisions because we have more information and more perspectives to inform those decisions.

It’s really important to remember that not every person who serves becomes a parent. But when people have the experience of parenting — and particularly when mothers have the opportunity to represent their constituents — I think they bring a different perspective. We know that women generally, and particularly women who are mothers, tend to interact more with people who have been marginalized in some way.

They tend to be the people who stay home with aging parents. They tend to be the people who stay home with young children. They tend to be the people who cut back on their hours at work if they have a child with a disability, and who go to all the doctor appointments and to the school. They tend to be the one who gets the call from the school saying, “Your child needs to come home because we can’t figure out what’s going on with them today.”

Because of that experience, I think it helps us really dig down into how our policies impact our constituents and how we can work together to improve that impact and improve the daily lives of people who have so much to contribute to their families and their communities and the economy.

What is your wish for the federal role in special education?

The first thing I would like to see is for us to meet the original promise we made of funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act so that our local communities could have more resources to use to address the goals of IDEA of full inclusion of our children in our public school system so that all children receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting.

I also think there is a great deal we could accomplish if we trained and empowered teachers not only to be good special educators, but to understand that the training teachers need to support students with disabilities — and the range of disabilities our students experience is a wide range — that training and experience can also just improve a teacher’s capacity to personalize education for all children.

If we could work toward a system where we’re not thinking of the special education and the so-called regular education systems as two separate things, but as systems that inform each other and can be integrated, we could improve education for all of our children.

What would have to happen for us to keep that promise and fully fund IDEA?

We’d have to have more people in the United States Congress who understood this as a priority, who were willing to insist that the resources be spent in this area. We would have to reach out and talk to our educators to see what they would need to make this transition, because there are areas of our public education system that are making this transition.

We have some good pilots around personalized, individualized education for all of our young people, around competency-based education, that are great examples. But it will take collaborations and partnerships with educators, with families, with school districts, and with the public generally to make this happen. And that takes commitment and resources and people in Congress who would vote to devote those resources to this mission.

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