During the confirmation hearing of Trump’s controversial pick for Secretary of Education, nominee Betsy DeVos revealed that she had no idea about IDEA. Senator Tim Kaine asked if she believed that schools should be required to meet the standards of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,) which guarantees students with disabilities “free and appropriate” access to education in public schools. DeVos responded that “it’s an issue best left to the states.” Kaine continued, “So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, and other states might not be so good, and then what, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how their kids are being treated?”
My twin brother is a third year senior at a public high school. Thanks to IDEA, he has the right to attend public school until he is 22. Regarding Tim Kaine’s comment about families moving around the country, I understand it was meant to be hyperbole. However, this is the unfortunate reality for many families in America. Mine moved to North Carolina seeking Medicaid-funded disability services, and we were extremely lucky to secure a slot. One boy I knew was on a wait-list for services for over 7 years. If IDEA were “left up to the states,” North Carolina might not feel obliged to allocate funds to special education. But my family–and thousands of others– wouldn’t be able move to another state if special ed programs deteriorated, unless we were willing to surrender in-home disability services. It would be a zero sum game.
Special education in public schools already demands repair. The high student:teacher ratio leaves few teachers responsible for many students, causing stress both to the teachers and to the students’ success in learning. Moreover, the teacher turnover rate disrupts stability in the classroom, and it may bring in under-qualified educators. My brother has had a different teacher every year for the last three years. Senator Hassan, whose son relied on IDEA for his public school education, worries that these issues would only worsen under Betsy DeVos. Her investment in voucher programs could drain resources from public schools, potentially turning them “into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities,” as Hassan warns. DeVos has been an active proponent of privatizing education and providing vouchers to private schools, but private and charter schools rarely provide special education (excluding schools that are wholly special needs.)
Pace Academy in Carrboro was an exception. It offered education to students with disabilities in an integrated environment, also serving “at-risk” youth. Though many students thrived, it was not enough. The school’s charter was revoked because students weren’t meeting standards. The state shut the school down a week before new school year. A friend of mine is a special education teacher, and she is concerned that “charter schools can and will remove children [with disabilities] from their schools if the children aren’t performing well enough. If that happens, the IDEA will not be as strong…[There could be an] increase in institutionalizing kids and/or not putting children with disabilities in appropriate settings.” The disability community has made monumental progress over the last few decades by taking people out of institutions and integrating them into society. DeVos’ ignorance of IDEA threatens to turn back the clock.
When Sen. Hassan revisited this issue later in the hearing, DeVos admitted that she wasn’t aware that IDEA was a federal law. “I may have confused it,” she said, and then vowed that she would “be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students.” Hassan sharply replied, “It’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about be willing to enforce a law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to…high quality public education.”