Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, appeared before senators at her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, but some of her responses created more questions than they answered. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Betsy DeVos displayed at best confusion and at worst a lack of knowledge about a key federal law involving students with disabilities during her Tuesday confirmation hearing before a Senate panel that will vote on whether she should become President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked DeVos about the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to provide children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education” and governs how states and public agencies provide various services to millions of students.

Kaine asked her if she believes that all schools that receive federal funding — whether public, public charter or private — should be required to meet the requirements of IDEA.

She responded: “I think they already are.”

Kaine: “But I’m asking you a should question. Whether they are or not, we’ll get into that later.” He then repeated his question.

DeVos said: “I think that is a matter that is best left to the states.”

Kaine responded: “So some states might be good to kids with disabilities and other states might not be so good and, what then, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how kids are being treated?”

Devos repeated: “I think that’s an issue that’s best left to the states.”

Kaine said: “What about the federal requirement? It’s a federal law, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act,” and he repeated his question.

DeVos began speaking about a Florida voucher program for students with disabilities that requires students to sign away their IDEA due process rights.

Kaine interrupted her saying, “Just yes or no.” But she continued, saying many parents are happy with the program. Kaine persisted: “I think all schools that receive federal funding — public, public charter, private — should be required to meet the conditions” of IDEA. He asked if she agreed.

DeVos said: “I think that is certainly worth discussion.”

Kaine interrupted her saying, “So you cannot yet agree with me.”

And he moved on to another subject, on which they didn’t agree.


Accompanied by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former Senator Joe Lieberman, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Near the end of the hearing, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) returned to the issue, telling DeVos that IDEA is a federal civil rights law and noting that federal law must be followed. She asked DeVos if she stood by her statement that it was up to the states to follow it, and DeVos responded, “Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.”

Hassan asked, “So were you unaware when I just asked you bout the IDEA that it was a federal law?”

DeVos responded, “I may have confused it.”

(DeVos may have confused IDEA? With what, exactly?)

Hassan then explained to DeVos what IDEA actually guarantees to students with disabilities, and urged her to learn about it, saying she was “concerned” that DeVos was unfamiliar with it. DeVos responded that if she is confirmed as education secretary, she would be “very sensitive” to the needs of special needs students.

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