by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
In “I Was A Disabled Student Educated In The Public School System & Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Understand The Needs Of Disabled Kids In Public Schools,” a graduate of Pitt County Schools and UNC Chapel Hill explains why she opposes Trump education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. While her story is a moving and instructive one, Ms. Lu, like most folks who object to DeVos’ nomination, fails to offer a compelling case against DeVos.
Wendy Lu describes herself as a “disabled woman of color who grew up in North Carolina and attended public schools all through childhood and college.” She received her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University last year and now is a lifestyle fellow at Bustle, a publication “for & by women who are moving forward as fast as you are.”
Lu knocks DeVos for her lack of public school experience, advocacy for school choice, family’s financial and political ties, and most notably her responses to questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that requires public schools to provided services to students with special needs. Lu believes that DeVos “wasn’t nearly as familiar with the IDEA as an education policymaker should be.” I would argue that DeVos’ responses to questions about IDEA during the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing do not support that conclusion.
DeVos never said that she would jettison IDEA or gut legal protections for disabled students. During the HELP hearing, she told New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, that “if I am confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of the special needs students and the policies surrounding them.” There is no reason to doubt DeVos’ sincerity.
One of the more widely reported exchanges from the HELP Committee hearing occurred between DeVos and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. As part of his underlying strategy, Kaine tried to coax DeVos into saying that private schools, particularly private schools that receive voucher funding, should be required to follow IDEA. Unlike district and charter schools, private schools are not required to abide by federal special education law, even if they enroll special needs students. Apparently, Kaine would like nothing better than to stick it to private schools who dare undertake the challenging task of serving special needs students.
Twice DeVos responded that it was a matter “best left to the states.” Admittedly, it was not clear what “matter” she had referenced because Kaine’s line of questioning dealt with multiple matters – the broad implementation of IDEA, the imposition of IDEA on all private schools, and the imposition of IDEA on private schools that receive taxpayer funding. My take is that DeVos believes that states should have the option of requiring private schools to follow IDEA if they receive taxpayer funding to serve special needs students. While I strongly disagree with that notion, I hardly believe that DeVos’ response was inexplicable, let alone grounds for disqualification or ridicule.
If DeVos is suggesting that states should have more discretion in the implementation of services for special needs students, then I think she has a point. Last year, the N.C. General Assembly allocated around $800 million in state taxpayer funding for special education programs, compared to around $300 million in IDEA grants from the federal government. Yet, despite our disproportionate contribution to the enterprise, federal laws and regulations dictate how the state serves the approximately 200,000 students who receive services from exceptional children programs in district and charter schools. How much of our state’s investment in exceptional children must be used simply to comply with federal IDEA regulations? Perhaps the constraints imposed by IDEA stifle innovation and thus compromise the quality of special education services our district and charter schools provide.
Of course, DeVos strongly supports one innovative approach – special education vouchers. If parents are not satisfied with the services their children receive in their public schools, they should have the opportunity and resources to select schools that better meets the needs of their children. Currently, over 800 special needs students in North Carolina receive up to $8,000 to attend the private school of their choice through the Disabilities Grant Program.
At the end her piece, Wendy Lu reveals her objections to DeVos go far beyond her perceived lack of knowledge about special education policy. “As a white woman and billionaire who comes from a place of immense privilege,” Lu writes, “Betsy DeVos has shown that she doesn’t understand the needs of marginalized communities — least of all young Americans with disabilities.”
DeVos’ race, gender, and socioeconomic status are as indisputable as they are irrelevant. Her record of championing school choice for underprivileged and special needs children stuck in failing schools suggests that she does understand and truly cares about the needs of marginalized communities, just not in the way demanded by Lu, teacher unions, and Democrats of immense privilege who are hell-bent in derailing her nomination.