Equity & Diversity

DeVos To Special Educators: Families ‘Shouldn’t Have to Sue’ For School Options

By Christina A. Samuels — July 17, 2017 3 min read
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Arlington, Va.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos drew on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on special education to renew her calls for school choice at an annual gathering of special education officials and experts from around the country Monday.

In remarks at the federal office of special education’s leadership conference, DeVos reflected on the unanimous opinion in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The court in March said individualized education programs for students with disabilities must be “appropriately ambitious.” In so doing, it rejected a standard that students’ special education plans plans must only confer a minimal—or “de minimis"—benefit to adhere to federal special education law.

“De minimis? The minimum? De minimis is preposterous,” DeVos said.

Here’s where her school choice theme came in: Endrew F.'s parents moved him to a private school that specialized in educating students with autism, because they said his individualized education program wasn’t changing from year-to-year. They sued their Colorado school district for tuition.

“A unanimous supreme court—and that doesn’t happen every day—displayed common sense in interpreting [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] to apply a better standard to Endrew and all our students,” DeVos said.

But while honoring Endrew’s parents, “we should also recognize that Endrew’s parents had the advantage of resources to choose another school for him.

“Most families don’t have that advantage and thus they don’t have a choice,” she said. “This is neither right nor just, and it’s fundamentally at odds with the American value of equal opportunity. Every family should have the ability to choose the learning environment that is right for their child. They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”

Setting Priorities for Civil Rights Complaints

DeVos also addressed the sensitive issue of civil rights enforcement. The education secretary has said that the Obama administration spent too much time handling individual complaints as examples of systemic institutional violations. That meant that complaints took too long to resolve, she said in a letter to Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee.

In comments that appear to allude to that letter, DeVos told the special educators that she has “reestablished equal treatment of IDEA cases in the office for civil rights, ensuring they are prioritized as much as any other complaints. Children with disabilities are no less deserving of their civil rights protections than any other student. Under my watch, that practice has ended, and it will not stand.”

UPDATE: As I was reminded by one of the attendees at the conference, it should be noted that the Education Department’s office for civil rights does not investigate “IDEA cases,” exactly. But my attempt to explain just who does investigate IDEA complaints was muddled in an earlier version of this post, said Candace Cortiella, the director of the Advocacy Institute. While the federal office of special education programs monitors state compliance with special education law, it does not directly investigate complaints about a given student’s individualized education program. Responsibility for oversight of local IDEA implementation is designated to the states.

The civil rights office, on the other hand, enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Both of these are civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against all people with disabilities, including students. Acting OCR chief Candice Jackson sent a letter to the department’s regional offices in June that trims back Obama-era policies that used individual complaints to OCR as a trigger to investigate potentially systemic problems.

Improving the IDEA Website

DeVos also drew attention to the department’s work in revamping the website that hosts the text and regulation of the IDEA, along with other resources. The website crashed in January around the time that DeVos was nominated. A refreshed IDEA website rolled out in June.

“It was a mess. It hadn’t been updated in over a decade, and its server literally had been left in a back corner to gather dust,” she said.

The overhaul was accomplished with the suggestion of educators in the field. “You deserve a regularly improving vehicle for getting the information you need, and we’re committed to continuing to iterate and improve this site,” DeVos said.

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