Normally, issues related to students with disabilities draw only a fraction of the attention that other education topics garner.
Not so when it comes to Betsy DeVos, an education choice advocate who is the Trump administration’s pick for education secretary. Senators’ phone lines have been flooded with calls of opposition. Even some conservative educators who backed Trump are lukewarm on her selection.
And special education advocates are right in the mix, especially because DeVos’ confirmation hearing included a rocky question-and-answer session on special education policy. Those organizations are urging senators to vote no on her nomination, or to delay a vote and ask DeVos for more assurances that she will support the rights of children with disabilities. A Senate education committee vote on her selection is scheduled for Jan. 31. Democratic senators on the committee have indicated that they will all vote no, but three Republicans in the full Senate would also have to vote no for her nomination to fail.
The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates is one of the groups that is requesting that senators vote down DeVos’ nomination. Prior to her appointment, DeVos was the chairman of the American Federation for Children, which supports school choice options such as vouchers and education savings accounts.
“We believe it is unconscionable to require a parent to give up their child’s right to a free appropriate public education in exchange for taxpayer funded tuition support at a private school,” COPAA wrote in a letter to senators.
The Council For Exceptional Children, an international organization of special educators, administrators, professors and others in the field, is looking for assurances that DeVos will enforce all provisions of the IDEA, and would not allow IDEA funds to be used for private school vouchers.
"[DeVos] made statements that have caused alarm among special educators, children and youth with disabilities and their families that she will not uphold the basic tenets of IDEA if she is confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education,” the CEC letter said.
Representatives from the National Down Syndrome Society met with DeVos two days after her confirmation hearing. The group posted a picture of DeVos with members of the group on Twitter Jan. 19, along with a statement that the organization “applauds her commitment” to special needs families.
That post prompted a burst of social-media outrage—a representative comment said that the organization “sold our children out"— and the organization later posted on its Facebook page that it is nonpartisan and did not want to turn down a “unique opportunity” to meet with DeVos.
“This is the beginning of an ongoing interaction to ensure positive outcomes for all students with Down syndrome, and we will hold Mrs. DeVos accountable,” NDSS wrote.
Special Education and Vouchers in the Spotlight
DeVos faced tough questioning from Democratic senators on whether students with disabilities should receive protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act if they accept vouchers to attend private schools.
In one exchange, DeVos said that it should be left up to the states to decide if all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to follow the IDEA. (IDEA applies to all public and charter schools. Private school students are entitled to some services under the IDEA, but those students do not have the same individual rights as public school students do)
Pressed on her knowledge of IDEA as a civil rights law by Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., DeVos acknowledged that she “may have confused it.”
DeVos also said IDEA funding “is an area that could be considered for an approach that would be somewhat different, in that maybe the money should follow individual students instead of going directly to the states.”
After the hearing, DeVos wrote a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., saying she is “committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard won rights of students with disabilities.” She also reiterated her commitment to “a broader choice of educational options” for students with disabilities.
Isakson liked what he read, saying that the letter “clearly outlines DeVos’ priorities and dedication to educating and protecting the rights of all students with disabilities.”
But other senators on the committee, such as Hassan, were less impressed.
"[H]er letter does nothing to reassure me that she will enforce the IDEA or honor our commitment to ensuring that all students receive a free and appropriate public education. In addition, Mrs. DeVos failed to address the original question I posed to her in her confirmation hearing, which was about why she is comfortable with voucher programs that force parents and students to sign away their rights under IDEA,” Hassan said in a statement.
Photo: Betsy DeVos speaks during a December rally on Dec. 9 in Grand Rapids, Mich.—Andrew Harnik/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.