Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has promised that she would enforce federal laws meant to protect students with disabilities, a move meant to reassure senators, advocates and parents who were unsettled by positions she seemed to stake out at her recent confirmation hearing.
“Thank you for the opportunity to more fully explain my position on the importance of protecting the rights of students with disabilities and ensuring that they receive the quality education they deserve,” she wrote Tuesday in a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). DeVos went on to write that she is “eager to bring a sense of urgency” to enforcing the federal law, as well as to providing students with disabilities more school choices.
During her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, DeVos at one point suggested that states should be able to decide whether to enforce the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate education. Later, she said she had been “confused” about IDEA, a four-decade-old federal law that protects civil rights.
Disability-rights advocates were upset by what was either DeVos’s lack of understanding of the federal education law or her belief that states’ rights should take precedence over a federal civil rights law.
Not all of those advocates were satisfied with DeVos’s letter to Isakson. (Read the full letter below.)
The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates on Thursday said they oppose DeVos’s nomination due to her “appalling lack of knowledge of educational concepts, the difference between the federal and state statutes that govern education, and basic facts about public education.”
Executive Director Denise Marshall said DeVos’s letter was a “first step in the right direction. But so much is at stake for the future of our children, we need deeper commitment. We need the opportunity to hear directly from Mrs. DeVos how she plans to ensure equity and eliminate discrimination.”
In her letter to Isakson, DeVos emphasized that she understands that IDEA is a federal law that the Education Department is responsible for enforcing, and she said that she believes that Individual Education Programs — the blueprints that lay out each special-education student’s learning goals, services and accommodations — must be made stronger and more effective.
She also said that she wants to seek ways to expand educational opportunities for students with disabilities, a position in line with her longtime advocacy for charter schools and private-school vouchers.
“I have seen exciting changes in students with disabilities when they attend schools that meet their needs,” DeVos wrote to Isakson. She pointed to Sam Myers, a friend with Down syndrome who received a voucher via an Ohio program for students with disabilities, and said Ohio’s program is a model of how states can both “implement the federal law and use their flexibility to ensure parents can choose the learning environment in which their children with disabilities will learn and thrive.”
Vouchers are a particularly polarizing policy within special-education circles, in part because students with disabilities are often required to give up some of their IDEA rights when they enroll in private schools. That’s the case with the Ohio program that DeVos lauded, said Susan Henderson, executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
“I still have concerns,” Henderson said of DeVos.
Tera Myers, mother of Sam Myers, last week came to DeVos’s defense, calling her a “compassionate advocate for children with disabilities” in an opinion piece published in the Hill newspaper:
“I know Betsy DeVos because she came to Ohio and stood shoulder to shoulder with me and other parents of children with special needs to fight for access to better schools. While federal law is supposed to protect the rights of disabled children, parents like me know that the system too often fails to live up to its promises.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who has a son with a disability, issued a statement Thursday in response to DeVos’s letter, saying that she will not vote to confirm DeVos:
“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.
A spokesperson for Isakson, whose wife of nearly 50 years is a special-education teacher, said he wanted to share DeVos’s letter in light of criticism of her confirmation hearing performance.
“As someone who has been married to a special education teacher for almost 50 years and has also served as chairman of the Georgia Board of Education, the education of kids with disabilities has been a passion of mine for decades,” Isakson said in a statement. “During my one-on-one meeting with Mrs. DeVos, the first thing I stressed to her was the importance of the IDEA program and parental involvement in the Individualized Education Program process. I am very pleased to see that she has followed up on our conversation with this letter that clearly outlines her priorities and dedication to educating and protecting the rights of all students with disabilities.”