Education Secretary Nominee DeVos Responds to Questions about Students with Disabilities
January 18, 2017 | Zach Baldwin
On January 17, 2017 Betsy DeVos testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on her nomination by President-Elect Trump to be Secretary of Education. During the confirmation hearing Ms. DeVos answered questions about her plans on a variety of topics. Below are brief clips from the hearing where Ms. DeVos addresses questions from Senators Tim Kaine (D – VA) and Maggie Hassan (D – NH) about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and voucher programs.
Under IDEA, a child with a disability and in need of special education services is entitled to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. AAPD supports full funding and robust enforcement of the IDEA.
AAPD is very concerned that Ms. DeVos seems unfamiliar with the IDEA and the protections it provides to students with disabilities. Should Ms. DeVos be confirmed as Secretary of Education, she must become more familiar with the law and commit to ensuring that it is fully-funded and enforced.
Please note: The transcripts included below are CART transcripts obtained from CSPAN and lightly edited for corrections.
Senator Hassan Questions Ms. DeVos about Voucher Programs
Sen. Hassan: And so, I want to talk about one of those situations you begin to touch on in my office when we met. It has a little bit of what senator Collins was talking about an terms of full commitment to students with disabilities and what senator Cassidy was talking about with qualifications for children with dyslexia. My son, ben, experiences cerebral palsy. He cannot speak or uses fingers, but he is smart and the best kid on earth, if I do say so myself. He got a quality public education at our local school. He is a graduate of Exeter high he is a graduate of Exeter high school in Exeter, New Hampshire. He worked so hard to make sure he had the right to that education. And I am concerned that with students who experience disabilities receive a publicly funded voucher to attend a private school, they often don’t receive adequate resources and in some cases have to find over their legal rights over the individuals with disabilities act. Do you think family should have a recourse in the courts if their child’s education does not adequately meet his or her needs, whether they get a voucher or more public and traditional?
Ms. DeVos: Thank you for the question. I appreciate our meeting earlier last week. Let me begin by saying I appreciate that you had the opportunity with your son, Ben, to find the right opportunity for him. I would advocate for all parents to be able to have that opportunity to choose the right school –
Sen. Hassan: I had the opportunity to send him to the same public school that my daughter went to because law required that that school provide him resources that were never invited before that law was passed because it was hard. So the question is, will you enforce the law with regard to kids with disabilities if the voucher program did allow them to go someplace else? And the school said, no, it is too expensive, we don’t want to do it.
Ms. DeVos: there are great programs already in place like in Ohio. Sam and his mom are here today, beneficiary of the john Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program.
Sen. Hassan: I understand that. But excuse me for interrupting. What I am asking you is, there is at least one voucher program, which makes students sign away their rights before they can get that voucher. I think that is fundamentally wrong, and i think it will mean that students with disabilities cannot use the voucher system that the department under your leadership might start. So I want to know whether you will enforce and whether you will make sure that children with disabilities do not have to sign away their legal rights in order to get a voucher should the voucher program be developed.
Ms. DeVos: I talk about this program were 31,000 are taking advantage, and 93% of the parents utilizing the voucher are pleased with it. As opposed to 30% —
Sen. Hassan: That is not the question I asked. For right now, I will move on to one final question I really do wish we had a second round. There is a lot here that is critical to our students with disabilities. With all due respect, Ms. DeVos, has not answered my question.
Senator Kaine Questions Ms. DeVos about the IDEA
Sen. Kaine: Let me move to my next question. Should all K-12 schools receiving governmental funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
Ms. DeVos: I think they already are.
Sen. Kaine: But I’m asking you a should question. Whether they are or not we’ll get into that later. Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
Ms. DeVos: I think that is a matter better left to the states.
Sen. Kaine: So some states might be good to students with disabilities, other state might not be so good, and then what? People can move around the country if they don’t like how their kids are being treated?
Ms. DeVos: I think that is an issue best left to the states.
Sen. Kaine: What about the federal requirement? It’s a federal law – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Let’s limit it to federal funding. If schools receive federal funding, should they be required to follow federal law? Whether they’re public, public charter, or private?
Ms. DeVos: As the Senator referred to – the Florida program, there are many parents who are happy with the program there.
Sen. Kaine: Let me say this, I think all schools that receive federal funding, public charter, or public, should be required to follow the individuals with disabilities and education act. Do you agree with me?
Ms. DeVos: I think that is worth a discussion.
Sen. Kaine: So you cannot agree with me. And finally, should all K-12 schools receiving government funding be required to report the same information in instances of harassment and bullying? If they receive federal funding.
Ms. DeVos: I think that federal funding certainly comes with strings attached.
Sen. Kaine: I think all such schools should be required to report, equally, information about discipline, harassment, and bullying. Do you agree with me or not?
Ms. DeVos: I would look forward to reviewing that provision.
Sen. Kaine: If it was a court I would say let the judges direct the witness to answer the question. It’s not a court, you’re not under oath, not under subpoena, but you are trying to win my vote.
Senator Hassan Questions Ms. DeVos about the IDEA
Sen. Hassan: The other thing I just wanted to circle back to – I want to go back to the individuals with disabilities and education act. That’s a federal civil rights law. So do you stand by your statement a few minutes ago that it should be up to the states whether to follow it?
Ms. DeVos: Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.
Sen. Hassan: So were you unaware when i just asked you about the idea that it is a federal law?
Ms. DeVos: I may have confused it.
Sen. Hassan: It guarantees absolutely basic protections to students with disabilities to ensure they are given a high-quality education with their peers. One reason it is difficult to have this hearing and feel that we fully understand your perspective is because we do know that children with disabilities – at least in some of the voucher programs that you have supported – have gone with a voucher to their school because of their disability, they have to leave the school, the school keeps the money, and they go back to public schools, that now have even less resources for them. Many of us see this as the potential for turning our public schools into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities, or the kids whose parents cannot afford to make up the difference between the voucher and the cost of private school tuition. I would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And I do have to say I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and that you seem to support vouchers schools that have not honored, that have made students sign away their rights to make sure that that the law is enforced. That is very troubling to me.
Ms. DeVos: Senator I assure you, if confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.
Sen. Hassan: With all due respect, it is not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high quality public education. And the reality is, the way the voucher systems that you supported work don’t always come out that way. And that’s why it is something we need to continue to explore.