Betsy DeVos at her Senate Confirmatoin hearing in Washington D.C. on January 17, 2017.
At an hour when most parents were headed home for the evening, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos sat down to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The unusual evening hearing raised a number of red flags before it even began: Five Republicans on the committee together had received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the billionaire Republican donor and her family, and the Office of Government and Ethics still had not signed off on DeVos's financial disclosures.
So perhaps it was not surprising that the roughly three-hour hearing included several bizarre episodes. DeVos cited grizzly bears as a justification for states determining whether firearms should be allowed in schools. The nominee also insisted that student debt rose 980 percent since 2008, when it only rose 124 percent. But the most shocking moment unfolded when DeVos admitted “she may have been confused” about the 42-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), one of the nation’s most fundamental civil rights laws.
Enacted in 1975, IDEA provides nearly seven million children in the U.S. with special education services. Special education oversight is one of the most significant responsibilities of the education department that DeVos has been nominated to lead. “The fact that she doesn’t understand the basics about federal education law is just appalling,” says Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), a national organization that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities. “It was pretty clear to us that she is not, and never has been, an advocate for students with disabilities.”
“Even around vouchers, which she supposedly does have a lot of experience with, she just talked about them writ large, as if they could solve every family’s dilemma,” Marshall adds. “She gave no indication that she understands that students with disabilities very often have to give up their legal and civil rights to use vouchers.”
One of Devos’s most stunning blunders came when she challenged the very notion of federal disability mandates, suggesting that it’s best for individual states to decide how to educate students with special needs. “That would turn back the clock by 40 years,” Marshall says. “IDEA was passed out of the recognition that students with disabilities are a group that requires greater protections. If states want to receive those federal funds, then they have to accept higher responsibilities, and provide those necessary supports.”
Thena Robinson Mock, director of the Opportunity to Learn Program at Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, says that an education secretary nominee who does not understand how IDEA benefits children of color is especially alarming. “If we know nothing else about the school-to-prison pipeline, we know that black and brown students with disabilities are the most vulnerable to punitive discipline policies that push them out of school and into the criminal-justice system,” she says. “These students still need the protections of IDEA because they are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, more likely to be referred to law enforcement and more likely to be arrested in school.”
Parents of students with disabilities also had strong reservations about DeVos’s performance, saying that her lack of rudimentary knowledge and experience should disqualify her from the position.
Dustin Park, who lives in Tennessee with his six-year-old diagnosed with Downs syndrome, told The American Prospect that DeVos’s testimony troubled him. “At best, she doesn’t know about the laws protecting students with disabilities, and at worst she doesn’t care,” he says. Park has been organizing and educating other parents about state and federal special education laws and noted that the Supreme Court heard a case just last week that will have massive implications for students with disabilities across the United States.
David Perry, a parent living in Chicago with a disabled child could not understand why a nominee did not have a good answer for such a softball question. “It’s either ignorance, or arrogance, or apathy,” he says. “Either way, I’m even more concerned about her nomination.”
Edward Fuller, a Penn State University education policy professor, told The American Prospect about his experience living in Texas, where his daughter, Jade, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and ADHD, had been routinely denied special education services. In 2016, The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas had arbitrarily decided that only a certain percentage of students would get special education, while denying thousands of other children their lawful services. The newspaper’s investigation has since prompted federal intervention.
“The debacle in Texas is a perfect example of what could happen if states are allowed control over special education and are allowed to interpret the laws around IDEA from their own perspective,” says Fuller. “States can adopt policies that leave huge swaths of kids without access to a free and appropriate education [and] many southern states would adopt the same strategy as Texas in order to reduce education spending.”
Tom Wellborn, a New Jersey parent of two children with special needs, says he can’t imagine how miserably his kids would be doing without the techniques they’ve learned from specialists in their schools. “DeVos is obviously unqualified; painfully so,” he says. Citing the grizzly bear comment, Wellborn says he can’t even fathom “whether she’s serious or thinks we’re all idiots.”
Freshman Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, and a parent of a son with cerebral palsy, challenged DeVos last night on the federal disability statute. In a statement provided to The American Prospect, Hassan said, “The fact that a nominee to lead the Department of Education seemed unfamiliar with the federal law to protect students with disabilities—a law that she would have a major responsibility in enforcing—is unacceptable. I will review Mrs. DeVos’s written responses but at this point she has done nothing to convince me that she’s a suitable choice to serve as secretary of education.”