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The deep irony in Betsy DeVos’s first speech on special education

Betsy DeVos at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23, in Washington, D.C. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos just gave her first major speech about special education — and it raised new questions about her understanding of the issues that students with disabilities face. Again, exactly six months after the first ones.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has called traditional public schools a “dead end,” has had something of a troubled past in talking about this issue. At her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, she answered a question about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), indicating that she didn’t know it was a federal law that all states had to enforce.

IDEA requires public schools to provide a free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities, and in her response, she said that she thought it was up to the states to decide on IDEA enforcement. She was later asked if she was unaware that IDEA was a federal law, and she conceded, “I may have confused it.”

Then in a letter to supposedly clarify her perplexing comment at that hearing, she said she knows IDEA is a federal law and said she wants to provide students with disabilities more educational opportunities, which is in line with her antiabortion agenda.  But in that letter, rather than talk about how traditional public school districts can improve their offerings for these children, she praised a voucher program in Ohio that allows eligible families of special needs students to use public funds to attend a private school. What she didn’t mention, however, was that the program — as well as most other voucher programs  — requires participating families to agree to give up special education due-process rights they are given under IDEA.

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

At that time, 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.

On Monday, DeVos gave a speech on the broad topic of students with disabilities, this time in Arlington, Va., at the Office of Special Education Programs Leadership Conference, which was attended by people who deal with IDEA cases. And how do you think she started?

No, she didn’t start out talking about the lack of resources that traditional public school districts — which educate the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren — have in trying to meet the needs of special needs students. Rather, she started out by talking about school choice. First, she noted that a friend of hers had, admirably, adopted a daughter with physical and cognitive disabilities and then got to choose which school to put her in. Then she lamented the fact that every family can’t choose the school they want. Soon after she said this:

We should celebrate the fact that unlike some countries in the world, the United States makes promises that we will never send any student away from our schools. Our commitment is to educate every student. Period. It’s but one of America’s many compelling attributes.

The irony in this statement is that it is the traditional public education system in the United States that promises a free and appropriate education for all students. There is no question that many traditional public schools don’t meet this promise, but the goal is aspirational and seen as a public good. And it is the traditional U.S. public education system that DeVos has labeled a “dead end” and a “monopoly,” while the alternatives to these traditional public school districts that she promotes don’t make the same promise.

DeVos has promoted charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — most of which do not enroll as many students as traditional public schools, percentage-wise, and many of which are not equipped to deal with special needs students. Many charter schools counsel out students who can’t meet the academic demands, which is far from the promise of trying to ensure that every child gets a free and fair education.

She is also an avid supporter of voucher and voucherlike programs that use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition and other educational costs. Most of these programs, as noted above, require families to give up some legal rights guaranteed under IDEA. And, of course, private and religious schools can accept and reject students, something that traditional public schools can’t do.

Supreme Court sets higher bar for education of students with disabilities

Critics charge that it is hypocritical to talk about the importance of IDEA while supporting educational programs that allow schools to force families to opt out of some provisions. They also note that while DeVos talked about the failure of many schools to provide adequate education for special needs students, there are questions about how she would want to hold accountable those schools that continue in this regard. She has repeatedly made clear that her idea of accountability in education is providing choice. Providing alternatives to public schools is her idea of accountability.

Why the word ‘merely’ turned many advocates for students with disabilities against Gorsuch

DeVos said in the speech 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.” Well, the Office for Civil Rights doesn’t handle IDEA cases. The Web page for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights notes that discrimination complaints can be filed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 — Title II prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities — but it doesn’t mention IDEA.

Given that DeVos likely didn’t write the speech herself, this means that she isn’t the only one in the Education Department who doesn’t seem to know this. And, she offered no proof that the Obama administration had de-emphasized IDEA complaints.

DeVos has made her agenda clear. Choice, choice and more choice is her answer for everything educational.

Here are DeVos’s prepared remarks as provided by the Education Department:

Good morning! And thank you, Kim, for that kind introduction. We’re very excited to have Kim join our team as Acting Assistant Secretary for OSERS. She’ll be working with Ruth Ryder, who you all know, and who led OSERS well through the transition. Thank you both.
It is an honor to be with all of you today. Your calling is one of service to infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities; I deeply respect and admire the work that you do.
That spirit of service reminds me of my friend Jen, who together with her husband adopted a daughter with physical and cognitive disabilities. They already had two biological children, but they felt called to help give this child a better life …
Jen was able to move her daughter to a school that she and her husband chose, and she is now thriving. They’re fortunate they were able to find a good fit, but many parents don’t get the same chance — they don’t have access to a wide menu of options, or the resources to move to a different school district, let alone state.
I’m thankful that we have a room full of people committed to helping families like Jen’s and all children with disabilities. It’s encouraging to see so many leaders that share a common purpose gathered under one roof. As we know, lots of people working together to solve problems doesn’t happen often enough, particularly here in Washington.
You’re here because of a shared and unwavering commitment to put the needs of individual kids above all else. I hope you take pride in such fulfilling work.
I’m reminded of something Anne Sullivan, who we know as the teacher and companion of Helen Keller, expressed at one point: too few see that your work helps produce even the smallest achievements.
So let me say to each of you: President Trump and I see you. We see your devotion. We see your love.
And we want you to know we are here to help you advance and address the needs of your students — indeed, our students. We are here to work with you, and we look forward to hearing more from you at this gathering.
We should celebrate the fact that unlike some countries in the world, the United States makes promises that we will never send any student away from our schools. Our commitment is to educate every student. Period. It’s but one of America’s many compelling attributes.
That promise requires the acknowledgment that every child is unique, with different strengths and challenges. It could be easy to get frustrated or discouraged when it comes to educating students with disabilities. But that’s because there are too often artificial barriers and roadblocks that limit your ability to focus on meeting their individual needs.
We’ve made tremendous technological breakthroughs in every other sector of our society, yet when it comes to education, we’re always playing catch-up rather than leading. We’ve simply been too slow to embrace these innovations that on their face help each of us live our best lives.
It struck me a few weeks ago, with the 10th birthday of the iPhone. In just 10 short years, that product has fundamentally changed almost everything about how we communicate. I can now video chat with my grandkids from any corner of the world, listen to music or order food and have it delivered to my front door. It’s made what was once thought impossible, possible. And, equally amazing, 11 years ago, we didn’t even know we needed or wanted it.
Smart tablets are doing the same for many kids with special needs. The data shows — and I’m sure you’ve seen for yourselves — that students on the autism spectrum or those lacking motor skills are significantly more engaged and better able to communicate — all thanks to a device the size of a dinner plate. It’s just one example of how innovation can fundamentally change the trajectory of a student’s education, and their life.
But not nearly enough kids are being given those kinds of opportunities. Too many students are being failed or left behind. This is an issue where we can all work together. It defies Party lines. Republican and Democratic administrations alike haven’t done enough to fulfill our promise to students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
No matter a student’s age or disability, the purpose of your work is to help them learn to lead successful, self-sufficient lives. The journey is difficult, but the reward is life-transforming independence and self-confidence.
Yet, far too often, the status quo suggests, “Just do the best you can with the resources you have.”
Let me be clear: this is not to question the intentions of the millions of educators and administrators working to help their students learn. But we should also recognize that it’s time we take a step back, reevaluate and refocus our efforts to better serve our students and their families.
This conference, your work and our students came to mind when I watched a video recently produced for World Down Syndrome Day. Some of you may have seen it.
A young woman with Down syndrome is shown reading a headline: “People with Down syndrome have special needs.” She doesn’t seem to think so, and then suggests other humorous “needs” that might be considered “special” — like if they could only eat dinosaur eggs, or had to wear a suit of armor everywhere they went.
But, she says, “What we really need is education. Jobs and opportunities. Friends, and a little love — like everybody else.”
She’s absolutely right. You know well that educating students with disabilities involves focused attention, but that does not mean schools or administrators should expect any less from them or that they should be sold short.
But too many schools, for too long, have done just that. They said a student’s IEP was appropriate so long as it was designed to provide “merely more than de minimis” progress.
De minimis? The minimum? De minimis is preposterous. Our students deserve better.
Endrew F’s parents knew that. I know everyone’s followed that case closely: it’s a major victory for students with disabilities and their parents.
Each year, Endrew’s IEP looked like the year before. Endrew didn’t make any progress, but the school district claimed it was bound by the “appropriate” standard.
Endrew’s parents removed him from that school and placed him in a private one they believed would better meet his needs. They were right. Endrew began to progress in ways he hadn’t before. His parents felt they should be reimbursed by the school district for failing to provide a free appropriate public education. The district essentially dared them to sue, so they did. And they won.
A unanimous Supreme Court — and that doesn’t happen every day — displayed common sense and interpreted IDEA to apply a better standard for Endrew, and all our students. When planning an IEP, schools must be “appropriately ambitious,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “Every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
Settling for minimum progress is not appropriate education. “Instruction that aims so low,” the Chief Justice cited, “would be tantamount to” watching our students sit idly in classrooms each year until they are old enough to “drop out.”
When it comes to educating students with disabilities, failure is not an option. De minimis isn’t either.
So, we should honor the courage Endrew’s parents showed in rejecting such a low bar for their son.
Yet 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. Their child may be trapped in a school that simply isn’t the right fit for them to grow and to thrive and to learn. 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.
This is our opportunity to do better. And, we are interested in hearing from you; questions you may have, challenges you are facing, and your success stories. Ensuring that all children with disabilities have appropriately ambitious goals and the chance to meet challenging objectives is a priority for the Department.
We know many of you use the IDEA website to access important resources and information, so I know how unfortunate it was for it to crash earlier this year. What a mess it was! It hadn’t been updated in over a decade, and its server had been left in a back corner to gather dust. It was an embarrassment, but more than that, it was a terrible disservice to all of us, and to all of the parents and advocates across the nation.
We did more than simply bring it back online; we totally overhauled it.
With your great input, we’ve made it attractive — imagine that, an attractive government website! — and improved its navigation, with an expanded search feature and additional resources for parents and educators alike.
Thank you for letting us know what was most important to you. Your feedback reinforced the importance of access to information. My office is here to lighten your burden so that you can focus on doing right by our students. You deserve a regularly improving vehicle for getting the information you need, and we’re committed to continuing to iterate and improve this site.
That is also one of the reasons this conference is so valuable. Our conversations here, and the relationships developed, are vital to the success of our students.
Student success requires we put each of them at the center of everything we do, especially when things don’t go right.
That’s why I’ve 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.
Furthermore, a posture of “adequacy” is inadequate. It breeds mediocrity at best, it is wholly unjust, and it is, frankly, insulting.
It’s no longer enough to simply pass a child along. You and I already knew that, but we can thank Endrew’s parents for bringing renewed attention to this fact. Respect and value are not luxuries. They are our values and they are the law of the land.
Some of us have lived long enough to remember the television show “Father Knows Best.” Well, parents of children with disabilities know best. They should be the ones to decide where and how their children are educated.
Families must be empowered to make these kinds of choices that are in the best interests of their children. And the state should never stand in the way of parents choosing what is right for their child. If we truly seek to be student-centric, we must give families increased choice.
Our work doesn’t end with offering better choices either. We’re here to prepare our students for what comes next.
As our friend with Down syndrome rightly pointed out, education leads to jobs and opportunities; it also fosters friendship and love. Those aren’t minimal needs — they’re human needs.
Low standards and expectations tell our students that we don’t have hope for them. That we don’t believe in them. But we do.
Every student should be loved and respected, and with our help, they can gain the tools to grow and become everything they meant to be.
Our children — all of our children — are 100 percent of our nation’s future. They deserve 100 percent of our efforts.
Thank you, and God bless you in all that you do.