By Scott Sargrad
January 19, 2017
The Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to run the U.S. Department of Education, was cringe-inducing, to say the least. DeVos demonstrated little to no knowledge about the key issues facing the department she's been tapped to lead, and she refused to commit to enforcing key civil rights laws and protecting public education.
But by far the most troubling moment came when DeVos claimed that enforcing the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, "is a matter best left to the states." DeVos then admitted that she "may have [been] confused" about whether it is actually a federal law.
It is simply unacceptable for a nominee to be "confused" about one of the most important civil rights laws ever enacted in the U.S.
IDEA provides critical protections for the 6.5 million students with disabilities – more than 1 out of every 8 students across the country – who receive special education services by requiring states and districts to provide a free, appropriate public education to every one of these students.
And, it provides $12 billion in funding to states, making it the second-largest K-12 program that DeVos would be responsible for administering.
Protecting the rights of students with disabilities and funding their education aren't partisan issues. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have historically supported IDEA and the funding it provides. And it is the federal education program that gets the highest level of support from the public – even more than financial aid for college students or Title I grants for low-income schools.
This support stems from the dramatic gains the nation has achieved as a result of this essential law. Before Congress passed the first version of IDEA in 1975, children with disabilities often received a minimal education and were placed in segregated settings away from their peers without disabilities.
The law gave parents the right to an individualized education program for their child and provided avenues for parents to force states and districts to recognize their child's needs and provide necessary services.
As a direct result of the law, today more than 60 percent of students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their day in a general education classroom.
Furthermore, outcomes for these students – while still unacceptably low compared to students without disabilities – have improved significantly. The graduation rate of students with disabilities has increased by more than 5 percentage points in four years, and reading and math scores have improved as well.
DeVos's lack of understanding of even the most basic facets of IDEA is troubling on its own. But even more concerning is the fact that DeVos is a single-issue lobbyist for voucher programs, including programs like the McKay Scholarship in Florida and the Special Needs Scholarship Program in Georgia.
These two programs – and others like them around the country – require parents to sign away their rights under IDEA to receive a voucher. Private schools then are not required to provide the special education services that these students need, and parents have no recourse if the schools simply refuse to do so.
Parents have little to no information on how the voucher program impacts their rights and even less information on the outcomes of the private schools that participate. Florida's parent FAQ, for example, does not even mention the rights parents are giving up when accepting the voucher and enrolling their child in private school. In addition, because Florida does not require participating private schools to report student outcomes, it is impossible to know how these students are doing.
To be sure, IDEA hasn't been a panacea for students with disabilities, and far more work is needed to make sure that these students are achieving at the same level as their peers. But the law has led to a sea change in how schools support students with disabilities. It is completely unacceptable that a potential secretary of education would be confused about whether it is her job to enforce it. Students with disabilities deserve a secretary who understands the law and will implement it in a way that protects their civil rights.
Scott Sargrad is the managing director for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining American Progress, Sargrad served as the deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.