Betsy DeVos draws a blank on major anti-discrimination law

Betsy DeVos isn’t familiar with IDEA, which protects kids with disabilities.

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrives before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. CREDIT: Carolyn Kaster
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrives before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. CREDIT: Carolyn Kaster

During her Tuesday confirmation hearing, Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos stumbled while discussing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), suggesting that she may not understand a key federal law intended to protect students with disabilities against discrimination. Nearly $13 billion in federal funding goes toward special education, making IDEA a major line item in the federal education budget.

During the confirmation hearing, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked DeVos whether schools that receive federal money, regardless of whether that school is a traditional public school, public charter school or private school, should comply with IDEA. DeVos answered, “I think that is a matter that is best left to the states.”

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Kaine then reminded her that IDEA is a federal law. When DeVos tried to change the subject, Kaine continued to press her on whether she agreed that all schools must comply. Despite her telling senators earlier that she would take Congress’ role seriously and enforce all of the laws, she said the federal law was “certainly worth discussion.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) brought the issue up again later in the hearing and asked DeVos whether she realized IDEA was a federal law.

“I may have confused it,” DeVos said.

IDEA exists to ensure students with disabilities receive the same quality of education as students without disabilities. It requires that schools identify and provide services to preschool-age children with disabilities; that students with disabilities have an individualized education plan (IEP) to make sure a school meets the needs of that particular child; and that students with disabilities are not isolated from classrooms where students without disabilities are being educated. It also protects students from being disciplined as a result of their disability.

It is still unclear what exactly confused DeVos, but it showed her lack of knowledge on the subject of federal protections for students with disabilities. Advocates for students with disabilities have long been concerned with how they will be treated within charter schools and private schools. Traditional public schools certainly aren’t innocent of violating their rights, but many charter schools and private schools’ emphasis on adhering to strict rules and keeping test scores high may serve to push them out, or ensure they never attend the school to begin with, some critics say.

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A 2012 Government Accountability Report found that charter schools enrolled fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. Although there are some charter schools that are tailored specifically for students with disabilities, the report found that parents may be more likely to turn to public schools because they assume charter schools will have less resources for their kids.

The percentage of Los Angeles Unified School district’s charter school students with severe disabilities is less than one third that of students with disabilities in the district’s traditional public schools. And although 12.5 percent of elementary school students in Chicago’s traditional public schools have individual education plans, only 9.5 percent of charter schools do, and special needs students at charter schools were more likely to be expelled or leave the school, a 2015 report from Equip for Equality, a disability rights group, found.

In 2014, the Louisiana Department of Education settled a lawsuit filed in 2010 with the parents of 10 New Orleans students who had alleged that students with disabilities were illegally disciplined. A parent of one of the plaintiffs said her child had been locked in a closet at a New Orleans charter school and treated as a “lost cause.” As part of the settlement, the state has to monitor the conditions at schools that scored the worst for serving students with disabilities. The latest findings showed some schools have a long way to go when it comes to identifying and evaluating students.

A 2014 report from the Center on Reinventing Education, report looking at special education in charter schools and at New York’s Uncommon Schools and Denver’s Strive Prep specifically, found the schools struggled to adapt their strict culture to the needs of students with disabilities. Success Academy, which enforces a stern approach to even the most minor incidents of misbehavior, has been investigated by The New York Times for putting students on a list named “Got to go.” The network is under two investigations by the U.S. Department of Education for its treatment of students with disabilities through school discipline.

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The national data on student discipline rates backs up disability advocates’ concerns about charter schools’ use of discipline. Students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended overall, but the rates are higher for students who attend charter schools, with 12 percent more students with disabilities being suspended at charter schools, according to a Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles report released last year.