In Letter, DeVos Says She’ll Protect ‘Hard Won Rights’ of Students With Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — January 25, 2017 4 min read
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Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary of education, said in a letter to a senator after her confirmation hearing that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a “wonderful example of what happens when parents are regarded as full partners in their child’s educational decision-making” and that she is “committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard won rights of students with disabilities.”

The Jan. 24 letter was addressed to Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, a member of the Senate education committee.

Before the hearing, DeVos met one-on-one with the senator, where he shared with her that his wife was a former special education teacher. Isakson is also a former chairman of the Georgia State Board of Education.

“I believe that all students, including individuals with disabilities, deserve an equal opportunity to lead full, productive and successful lives,” she wrote in her letter.

The Senate committee is scheduled to vote on her nomination Jan. 31.

DeVos Questioned on Special Education Policy

Prior to her nomination for education secretary, DeVos led the American Federation for Children, which supports private school vouchers, education savings accounts, and other forms of educational choice.

DeVos faced pointed questions on special education policy from Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, both Democrats, during the confirmation hearing. During one exchange with Kaine, he asked if she believed that all schools that receive taxpayer funding be subject to the rules of IDEA. She replied, “I think that’s a matter best left to the states.”

As a civil rights law, IDEA already applies to all traditional public and charter schools. Private school students—including students with disabilities who accept vouchers to pay for tuition—are generally not subject to the same IDEA rules that apply to public schools.

In a subsequent exchange with Hassan, the senator pressed DeVos on whether she was aware that IDEA was federal civil rights law. “I may have confused it,” DeVos said.

Disability advocacy organizations picked up on those comments and others and have either opposed DeVos’ nomination, or suggested that she needs to clarify her views. A sample comment, from the National Center for Learning Disabilities: “Families of students with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities, need to hear that Ms. DeVos is committed to honoring the history and vision of IDEA and boldly enforcing the law. Anything less is inexcusable, especially because we know that, when given the right services and supports, students with disabilities can and do thrive in school and life.”

DeVos Seeking ‘Broader Range’ of Educational Options for Students With Disabilities

DeVos’ letter to Isakson addressed three areas: the federal role in implementing IDEA, individualized education programs, and expanding educational options for parents. The federal role is to “guide and monitor compliance while supporting states with the tools they need to help parents, schools, districts and other stakeholders succeed,” she wrote.

Individualized education programs (or IEPs) should be viewed as “practical blueprints for action,” and that she would make it a priority if confirmed to highlight “what works best for students with disabilities.”

DeVos also said that she would look for ways to increase access by students with disabilities to a broader range of educational options. Accompanying her to the confirmation hearing was Tera Myers, a mother from Mansfield, Ohio, and her 22-year-old son Sam, who has Down syndrome. Sam Myers received a Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship to attend a private school in his community. Prior to that, he was educated through an online charter school and in public school, his mother said in an interview with Education Week. This particular voucher program, named after a former state representative who championed its creation, provides $7,447 to $27,000 annually to families, depending on the severity of a child’s disability.

DeVos said the Ohio voucher “exemplifies how states can—and do—implement the federal law and use their flexibility to ensure parents can choose the learning environment in which their children with disabilities will achieve and thrive.”

In a statement, Isakson said that “during my one-on-one meeting with Mrs. DeVos, the first thing I stressed to her was the importance of the IDEA program and parental involvement in the individualized education program process. I am very pleased to see that she has followed up on our conversation with this letter that clearly outlines her priorities and dedication to educating and protecting the rights of all students with disabilities.”

Myers, who wrote an editorial for the Hill newspaper praising DeVos, said she was “ecstatic” when DeVos was nominated for the Education Secretary post.

“I couldn’t find any reason why she would want this job, other than for the benefit of all children,” said Myers, who also said she believes DeVos understands special education policy.

“I believe she is very well-versed,” Myers said. “I just don’t think she had a chance to model it.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.