“Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement Friday.
The announcement does raise questions, however, about how far schools will be expected to go – and at what expense – to offer sports for students who need more than just a minor accommodation. Will offering one wheelchair sport, such as basketball, be enough, or will a district have to offer wheelchair tennis and volleyball if they offer those sports to nondisabled students, for instance?
“My worry is the Department of Education is signing a blank check that is coming of the bank accounts of local school districts,” says Michael Petrilli, an education expert and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.
There should have been public input and a cost analysis, he adds. “We’re talking about potentially billions of dollars in new spending, and these regulatory agencies aren’t supposed to have the kind of authority to just do that by fiat.”
Sports can be provided at a reasonable cost, advocates say, and a host of organizations have sprung up in the past two decades to help schools develop policies and set up citywide or regional sports adapted for disabled students.
“We don’t know yet how this will affect school districts in terms of cost issues,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “I would think most of our schools and administrators will be very supportive and will do everything they can to implement this in their districts.”