“She sent me door to door in New Bedford, Massachusetts on behalf of children with disabilities who weren’t able at that time to attend public schools.”
— Clinton, National Baptist Convention in Missouri, Sept. 8, 2016
“I went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, going door to door in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on behalf of children with disabilities who were denied the chance to go to school. I remember meeting a young girl in a wheelchair on the small back porch of her house. She told me how badly she wanted to go to school — it just didn’t seem possible.”
— Clinton, acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, July 28, 2016
Clinton has told this story in numerous speeches and even wrote about it in her 2003 memoir, “Living History.” In these quotes, the woman sending Clinton to New Bedford is Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization Clinton worked for in the 1970s.
Some New Bedford officials were “livid” at Clinton’s portrayal of their home town in the DNC speech, while others were “really proud.” Then a former New Bedford mayor told local news outlets that Clinton’s claim was incorrect, as his city provided transportation for children with disabilities in the 1970s. Several readers asked us to check it out to see who’s correct, so we looked into it.
From July 1973 to March 1974, staff members of the Children’s Defense Fund worked with local organizations in 30 areas in nine states, including in New Bedford, to study just how many children didn’t or couldn’t go to school. The 1970 Census had found that nearly 2 million children between 7 and 17 years old were not enrolled.
But the census data didn’t fully capture the problem. For example, children weren’t included in the data if they were expelled for disciplinary reasons or reported as receiving home or alternative education because they were pregnant or had a disability. The Children’s Defense Fund wanted to get a better sense of all the barriers that kept children from attending school.
Among other things, the organization found that children with special needs or physical or mental disabilities were being excluded from school. Some parents elected not to send their children to school. Some public schools denied these children admission. At the time, 48 states (including Massachusetts) had compulsory attendance laws but also had statutes exempting children with disabilities. “The exclusion of handicapped children has grown out of the view that they are ineducable,” read the Children’s Defense Fund’s 1974 report.
Hillary Rodham is listed as a staff member who worked on this project. Her campaign said she worked on the project in New Bedford in 1973.
In 2008, the Boston Globe interviewed Bill do Carmo, then head of the local NAACP, who recalled meeting Clinton in New Bedford. But few others remembered her there, the Globe reported, as researchers were always coming to the city to study its high rates of poverty and school dropouts, especially among Portuguese immigrants.
John Markey, the city’s mayor from 1972 to 1982, told The Fact Checker that New Bedford contracted with a bus company to provide transportation for children with disabilities. He took issue with Clinton’s highlighting the lack of access that New Bedford children faced in the 1970s. The service was already available when he was elected in 1971, and it kept running while he was mayor, Markey said.
“It provided for every handicapped child,” said Markey, 81, and a lifelong Democrat. “There could be a lot of people who elected not to send their kids to school. But if a child wanted to go to school, we provided transportation.”
Neither Clinton nor Markey is incorrect, said Jonathan Carvalho, spokesman for New Bedford Public Schools. The school system couldn’t track down a bus contract in the 1970s, but Carvalho said it’s reasonable to believe that some students with disabilities had access to school transportation, while other children with disabilities stayed at home. It’s not unique to New Bedford and is a reflection of the lack of compulsory attendance enforcement, Carvalho said.
Thanks to ace researcher Alice Crites, we found contemporaneous news articles confirming that not all children with disabilities in Massachusetts had access to school. In July 1974 — four months after the Children’s Defense Fund staffers finished their field research — state newspaper the Lowell Sun published an article about a law set to take effect that September, mandating that all schools provide education to children with special needs. (The articles are embedded at the end of this fact-check.)
“Technically, most states have required education for some types of handicapped children. The difficulty has been that this legislation was fragmented, dealing with various disabilities separately, and was seldom enforced,” the article reads.
In September 1978, a Massachusetts law took effect requiring all “mainstream” schools to educate children with disabilities. That was three years after the federal government passed a law requiring all states to educate children with disabilities through the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).
The Pinocchio Test
Based on contemporaneous news coverage and the 1974 Children’s Defense Fund report published after the project carrying Clinton’s name, it’s clear that not all children in New Bedford (and elsewhere in the country) attended school if they had a disability or any other physical or economic barrier. That is not surprising, given that the federal law requiring all states to educate children with disabilities didn’t pass until 1975.
The former New Bedford mayor acknowledged that not all students with disabilities may have taken advantage of the transportation service the city provided in the 1970s. That essentially renders concerns about the veracity of Clinton’s story moot. Based on the information available from the time, there’s no reason to doubt Clinton’s story of meeting children in New Bedford in 1973 who didn’t or couldn’t go to school because of a disability. She receives the coveted Geppetto Checkmark.
The Geppetto Checkmark
Send us facts to check by filling out this form.
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter.