What’s the big IDEA?

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is not popular with parents of kids with disabilities, and with good reason.

At her confirmation hearings, DeVos claimed she would be “very sensitive” to the needs of special needs students after it was revealed she didn’t know the federal law governing their right to education.

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.”

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 later sent a letter “clarifying” her views on IDEA, which was so problematic I can’t even begin to pick it apart. However, this response from the Executive Director of COPAA says it all.

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.”

Since her confirmation hearings, many parents have been rightly concerned, hoping she wasn’t going to dismantle an important part of our children’s civil rights. This week, worries grew, when DeVos gutted campus sexual assault investigation guidelines.

A new favorite blog of mine, the Autism Policy blog, had a brief post clarifying her views on IDEA, via an interview excerpt from Education Weekly, specifically fully funding IDEA. Her response in not comforting.

Q: Would you push for full funding of IDEA? That’s 40 percent of the excess cost of educating a child with disabilities.

A: I think it’s a fair question to ask Congress about what the funding levels should be. Right now it’s about 15 to 18 percent. And yet, the regulations continue to sort of get piled on here and there. They just continue to sort of make it more and more cumbersome and more and more burdensome for states and for local districts. There has to be, I think, a regular review of that and look at the balance of that, and see what’s really right. But most of all what’s really right for the students we’re trying to serve and for the families and what kind of empowerment do they have in that decision-making.

Translation: It’s a fair question to ask about funding, but only so that we can cut regulations and oversight for charter schools. We empower families by giving them a voucher that is virtually useless for private or parochial tuition. It will cover a small part of their tuition and they will lose access to services they would receive in public schools, like speech therapy.

It’s coming. We don’t know when, but DeVos will come for our kids and we need to be ready.

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