Special Education

Senators Seek Answers from DeVos on Special Education Website Outage

By Christina A. Samuels — February 10, 2017 2 min read
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For at least two weeks, the U.S. Department of Education-hosted website that contains the text of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, along with its associated regulations, model forms, Q&As, guidance letters, and other documents, has been down.

The web address—idea.ed.gov—leads to another site that includes some special education information, but it doesn’t include all the information that was housed at the old site.

People have noticed. And now, Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, are asking for an explanation. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, they write:

During your hearing before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, your statements regarding the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) raised concerns among children with disabilities and their parents about your and the Trump administration's views on special education and the rights of these families and students. We expect you and the Trump administration to fulfill your commitment to all students, including students with disabilities. To that end, we are deeply concerned that prior to your confirmation and arrival at the department the centralized resource website for the IDEA ("https://www.idea.ed.gov") became inaccessible to the public for more than a week, and is now redirecting people to a site for the Office of Special Education Programs ("OSEP"). The OSEP website lacks much of the information previously available. The Department's failure to keep this critical resource operational makes it harder for parents, educators, and administrators to find the resources they need to implement this federal law and protect the rights of children with disabilities. For more than a decade, this website, which was released by President George W. Bush's Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, has served as a one-stop-shop for resources related to IDEA and its regulations. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services has consistently updated this website as Congress has enacted new legislation and the Courts have interpreted the law.

Murray and Cantwell’s letter, released Feb. 10, is asking the department to assure that the site will not be stripped down during DeVos’ tenure and a detailed timeline of how the website failure occurred and when it is expected to be resolved.

“Given your past statements about the IDEA before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the fact the website has been unavailable for an extended period of time, we are certain you are just as anxious as we are that these resources be quickly restored,” the senators noted.

As I’ve written before, the IDEA exists and will continue to exist, even if the official website for the law is not accessible. (And a copy of the old IDEA website is still accessible through the always-useful Internet Wayback Machine.) The law can only be changed by Congress.

But, during her confirmation hearing, DeVos, a strong supporter of school choice, seemed unfamiliar with the details of special education policy, and parents of children with disabilities were among some of her most vocal opponents. DeVos’ successful confirmation ultimately hinged on a vote from Vice President Mike Pence, who broke a tie in the Senate.

And that’s why this website outage has taken on huge symbolic importance among many parents and disability advocates, even though department officials say the website went down days before DeVos’ confimation. The timing could not have been worse for such a noticeable “disappearance.”

A department spokesman said there have been “server problems” and that the department is working on resolving the problem as quickly as possible. We’ll keep you posted. And while we’re talking about the IDEA, I’ll just note that a reauthorization for the law is about nine years overdue. So while Congress makes sure that the current law is accessible to all, working on a new version could be added to lawmakers’ to-do list.

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