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The telling letter Betsy DeVos wrote to clarify her position on U.S. disabilities law

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for education secretary, greets Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) before her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire President Trump nominated to be education secretary, wrote a letter to a senator about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. What she said in that letter is very telling about her education priorities.

DeVos wrote the letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, after a Jan. 17 confirmation hearing in which DeVos revealed a lack of understanding of basic education issues, including IDEA.

Six astonishing things Betsy DeVos said — and refused to say — at her confirmation hearing

A strong supporter of school choice, DeVos is perhaps the most controversial of Trump’s Cabinet picks. Supporters say she wants to provide new educational opportunities for students, and DeVos has said she wants to support all education options, including traditional public schools. Critics, however say that her years-long advocacy for charter schools and vouchers is really part of a movement to privatize public education. Some groups representing Americans with disabilities have come out against her nomination, saying she is no friend of students with disabilities.

IDEA requires public schools to provide free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities. During the hearing, DeVos said that states should have the right to decide on IDEA enforcement, suggesting she didn’t realize it was a federal law that required states to follow its mandates.

Watch the full exchange between Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Betsy DeVos, the nominee for education secretary, at her confirmation hearing. (Video: Reuters)

When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) quizzed her about implementation of IDEA, she said, “I think that’s an issue that’s best left to the states.” Later, when Sen. Margaret Wood Hassan (D-N.H.) told her that IDEA is a federal civil rights law and asked DeVos whether she stood by her statement that it was up to the states to follow it, DeVos responded, “Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.” Hassan then asked, “So were you unaware when I just asked you about the IDEA that it was a federal law?” DeVos responded, “I may have confused it.”

Betsy DeVos apparently ‘confused’ about federal law protecting students with disabilities

Days later, DeVos wrote a letter to Isakson trying to explain her position on IDEA. The letter raises new questions about her priorities.

DeVos wrote in the letter (see text below) that she understands IDEA is a federal law and that she is “eager to bring a sense of urgency” to enforcing it. She said that she wants schools to strengthen student IEPs, which are Individual Education Programs that spell out special-education learning goals and needed services/accommodations.

DeVos says she will protect students with disabilities, but advocates aren’t convinced

She then said she wants to provide students with disabilities more educational opportunities — and praised a voucher program that helps students with disabilities attend private school funded with taxpayer dollars.

“One additional strategy I will pursue is to look for ways to increase access by students with disabilities to a broader range of educational options.  I have seen exciting changes in students with disabilities when they attend schools that meet their needs. My friends, Sam Myers and his mother Tera, attended my confirmation hearing last week. Sam, who has Down syndrome, was a Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship recipient. The program 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.
“I am eager to bring a sense of urgency around all of these issues: implementation and enforcement of IDEA at federal, state and local levels; improving the quality of IEPs; and expanding the conversation about school choice opportunities for parents of students with disabilities.”

She doesn’t talk specifically about helping traditional public schools — which educate the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren — improve their special education programs or how they implement IDEA.

Rather, she praised the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship program in Ohio, which gives public funds to eligible K-12 students who have IEPs to attend the private school of their choice. That program, as well as many other voucher programs, require participating families to agree to give up special education due-process rights they are given under the IDEA law.

In her exchange with Kaine during the hearing, she referred to a Florida voucherlike program, saying that parents like it, but she didn’t mention that parents who agree to participate also have to give up legal rights to accept money for tuition.

Hassan focused on this issue in the statement she issued on Thursday saying she would not support DeVos’s nomination:

“While I’m glad Mrs. DeVos clarified that she is no longer confused about whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law and was able to define the basic tenets of this law, her 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.
“Between her lack of experience with public education, her support for diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools without accountability requirements, and her lack of understanding of the challenges facing students with disabilities, Mrs. DeVos has shown herself to be completely unqualified for this position — and her recent letter has only reinforced that she is unfit to serve as Secretary of Education. I will vote against Mrs. DeVos’ nomination and I urge my colleagues to do the same.”

The American Association of People with Disabilities issued a statement saying in part:

The mission of the Department of Education must be to advance a national system of quality public education and protect the rights of all children, including children with disabilities, within that system. Ms. DeVos’ testimony during her confirmation hearing, together with her lengthy record of supporting the diversion of public tax dollars to private schools that limit the rights of students with disabilities, indicate that as Secretary she would undermine that critical mission….

Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) issued a statement that said in part:

“It’s clear that Betsy DeVos is not, nor has ever been an advocate for children with disabilities. The fact that she didn’t understand the basics about education concepts or the three essential federal education laws is embarrassing and her lack of knowledge on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is appalling. We are alarmingly concerned. Furthermore, she advocates for vouchers writ large — as if they can solve every family’s dilemma.”

Here’s the letter DeVos sent to Isakson: