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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Betsy DeVos' Ignorance is Not a Compelling Argument For Private Schooling

From Forbes Magazine

By Emily Willingham
January 18, 2017

"In the public exam that is a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, that daughter of private schools gave an embarrassing performance and earned a failing grade."



Betsy DeVos is a lot like the man who nominated her for education secretary. She showed up for the exam unprepared and careless and seemed to think that her mere presence was sufficient to carry the thing off. Perhaps that's how it's worked for DeVos her entire life, allowing her to skate past the need to learn pesky details about things like grizzly bears or federal education statutes related to disability.

DeVos raised eyebrows and dropped jaws during her confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee where she showed her ignorance about two widely divergent subjects: bears and disability laws.

First, the bears. When asked about whether or not guns are needed in schools, DeVos replied in the affirmative. Seeking what she presumably felt was her most compelling argument, she asserted that, for example, schools in Wyoming might need to allow guns to protect children from "potential grizzlies." Immediately, a hashtag was born.

But her argument was silly, at best, a Hail Mary answer from an unprepared student trying for some extra credit points. The distribution of grizzly bears in Wyoming is, shall we say, limited. In truth, they are confined to the upper northwest corner of the state. Where Yellowstone National Park is. There aren't typically schools in national parks, and the distribution of public schools anywhere near grizzly territory is unimpressive, at best.

DeVos was apparently referencing a comment Wyoming Senator Mike Enzo had made about the need to build a protective wildlife fence around a single school in Wapiti, Wyoming. And indeed, a grizzly once was sighted walking near the school, outside the fence built around it to protect it from ... grizzlies.

Of course, the grizzly wasn't in the school, where DeVos seems to think the guns should be. And, of course, she's making an argument that our nation's schools should have guns if they'd like and basing it on the needs of one elementary school on the edge of protected grizzly territory--which is quite limited in the lower 48--in our nation's least-populated state.

Because, of course, as goes Wapiti, Wyoming, so should go our nation. (As it turns out, the state of Wyoming disagrees with DeVos).

Having lived and sent my children to public school in bear country, I can say that a far deeper concern would be any large hoofed antlered animal during the rut. I'm surprised that DeVos didn't mention the even greater threat that aroused and angry elk and moose bulls pose to our nation's schools.

Unfortunately, DeVos knows as much about disability laws pertaining to education as she does about justifications for allowing guns in schools. The grizzly comment was eyebrow-raising and mildly amusing. But her responses regarding federally protected rights of children with disabilities in our nation's public schools demonstrated a jaw-droppingly profound and unacceptable level of ignorance.

Former vice-presidential candidate and current senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) opened the subject by asking DeVos about how she would ensure adherence to the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. This federal law requires that public schools ensure that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education (the acronym is FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (acronym, LRE) possible.


Together with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, these statutes form the foundation of the rights that these students have.

Kaine asked DeVos, who has never attended public school, worked in one or sent her children to one, if she thought that all government-funded schools were adhering to this law (N.B.: many are not) and should be required to do so. DeVos gave her first strikingly ignorant response to this question, stating that she believed that all schools were following the law. And then she dug a deeper hole by following up with:

"I think that's a matter best left to the states."

IDEA is a federal law. The U.S. Department of Education is specifically responsible for enforcing it. Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education stated in her confirmation hearing that she thinks that this oversight belongs to the states.

Kaine was unimpressed with his student:

"So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, other states might not be good, and then what? People can just move around the country if they don’t like [the schools]?"

Then Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) took up the baton on behalf of IDEA and her own son, Ben, who has cerebral palsy and is a member of the population it serves. In a follow-up on Kaine's exchange with DeVos, Hassan pushed the nominee on what she'd said, asking her if she stood by her statement that "that's a matter best left to the states."

This time, the student waffled. DeVos replied:

"Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in...in...play."

Hassan pushed: "So, were you unaware that of what I just asked you about the IDEA, that it was a federal law?"

DeVos's reply?

"I may have confused it."

This student clearly did not do her homework.

You can see more of her exchange with Hassan here, with Hassan pressing DeVos on whether or not, under a voucher system, students who receive them would have to waive their rights under these laws.

DeVos in the same hearing refused to rule out defunding public schools entirely.

Like most Americans, I am a product of public school education. Elementary school, junior high and almost all of high school, my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and even my postdoc--all completed at public schools.

Our family has considerable experience with terms like IDEA, FAPE and LRE in our public schools, and I know a thing or two about "potential grizzlies" (for example, bear spray is pretty effective, possibly better than a gun).

DeVos has zero experience with public schools and apparently doesn't recognize one of the most prominent federal laws protecting students with disabilities. Despite her private school education, she couldn't even pass the most basic exam about our nation's schools, the institutions she's been nominated to oversee and protect. She doesn't exactly come across as the poster child for the benefits of privatization.

In the public exam that is a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, that daughter of private schools gave an embarrassing performance and earned a failing grade.

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