After a highly contentious Senate confirmation process, Betsy DeVos became the Secretary of Education last week. She immediately tried to start reaching out by touring a public school in the Washington DC area. Apparently, trying to do the job she was confirmed to do was a problem for protesters. Amazingly, two people you’d least expect came to defend Secretary DeVos.
The first was the man who had just held her job.
Agree or disagree w @BetsyDeVos on any issue, but let's all agree she really needs to be in public schools. Please let her in.
— Arne Duncan (@arneduncan) February 10, 2017
The second was someone who fought vigorously against her confirmation.
Just heard a protester blocked & almost knocked Secy @BetsyDeVos down at Jefferson.We don't condone such acts.We want her to go to pub schls
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) February 10, 2017
BTW, we were part of and fully supported the parent and community protest at Jefferson conveying our love of public schools- pic.twitter.com/GYtBbpJbne
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) February 10, 2017
Despite the giggles over “Typogate” over the weekend (and it’s highly unlikely that Secretary DeVos is taking a leaf out of President Trump’s book and tweeting from the Department of Education’s account herself), there is still a huge undercurrent of unease and concern over Betsy DeVos. And in the circles in which I live and run, it’s ratcheted up with even more concern. I have four children in public schools, three of them with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and in special education. I’ve had people ask for my opinion about the new Secretary of Education. With apologies to Douglas Adams, my short opinion is “DON’T PANIC.” My long opinion is below.
1) Betsy DeVos was badly prepared and gave a terrible performance at her confirmation hearing.
I don’t know who was in charge of preparing her for the hearing, but they did a terrible job. It also demonstrated how Secretary DeVos is not a good extemporaneous speaker. The clip that was played over and over, of course, was the one where Senator Tim Kaine asked DeVos about special education – specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
What DeVos should have said was, “Senator Kaine, as you are no doubt aware, a Cabinet secretary has no power to change, repeal, or ignore federal law. I am not Eric Holder. Since IDEA is a federal law, the Department of Education will follow that law.”
If DeVos had said that, so much of what followed would have been blunted or avoided. Instead, she stuck to her canned script and got not-unjustly berated for it. Her performance was so terrible that she wrote a letter to Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) laying out her actual position on IDEA.
One additional strategy I will pursue is to look for ways to increase access by students with disabilities to a broader range of educational options. I have seen exciting changes in students with disabilities when they attend schools that meet their needs. My friends, Sam Myers and his mother Tera, attended my confirmation hearing last week. Sam, who has Down syndrome, was a Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship recipient. The program exemplifies how states can — and do — implement the federal law and use their flexibility to ensure parents can choose the learning environment in which their children with disabilities will achieve and thrive.
I am eager to bring a sense of urgency around all of these issues: implementation and enforcement of IDEA at federal, state and local levels; improving the quality of IEPs; and expanding the conversation about school choice opportunities for parents of students with disabilities.
DeVos’s letter to Senator Isakson received scant attention in the media (because the video of her stumbling her way through the confirmation hearing played so much better), but it does detail what her actual policy positions are.
2) Betsy DeVos clearly has limited experience with special education, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Though she cites one friend with a special needs child in her letter, it is clear that DeVos does not have vast amounts of experience with negotiating the minefield of special education. However, she was not hired to be the Secretary of Special Education. Her results in Michigan are mixed, depending on the source. Even if you disagree with school choice or vouchers for some reason or another, DeVos’s efforts to give poor and minority children some educational options has earned praise from both sides of the aisle.
(At least until she was nominated to take part in a Republican administration, that is.)
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBookerOffice) February 7, 2017
That aside, it is a well-known fact that special education parents are deeply committed to improving the public school offerings for their special needs students, and the main reason why is that private schools and charter schools, generally speaking (as there are always exceptions), do not accept or accommodate special needs kids. The public schools are the only ones required, under federal law, to accept these students and provide an education for them. And even then, if you read any comments section on a news article detailing special education, you will find people who complain about their tax dollars being used to “babysit vegetables” and other such highly enlightened complaints about how children who will not “be productive in society” still go to school and take money from “normal” kids.
Yes, in some programs, “education” is a loose term. I should know, because my son started in a program that is now euphemistically called “Functional Skills and Academics.” This program is for the most medically fragile and the most severe of disabilities. (And oh yes, there is a pecking order within special education. Never doubt that.) Some of the children in my son’s class in his first grade year probably won’t live beyond their teen years. Others will be nonverbal their whole lives, and will spend years trying to master a skill like feeding themselves with a spoon. And yet you will find the most dedicated and caring teachers in those classrooms. These are the teachers you want your child to have, because they are the ones who build relationships with their students and their families. (And another side note – some of the best teachers are found in special education classrooms, because these are the teachers who wear their hearts on their sleeves and come to school each day to make a difference in a child’s life. Special ed has a high burnout rate because of the demands, so when you find a teacher who has spent years in those classrooms, know that you have found a gem among teachers, and treat them accordingly.) Students with severe medical and cognitive issues deserve the same respect and effort that a neurotypical general education student deserves. Their educations will not be comparable, because they are different people with different needs. Truly, if we really cared about each child’s education, each child should have an IEP that identified their strengths and weaknesses and areas to focus on within the course of the school year. But imagine the paperwork!
School choice is an option that has long been denied to special education students unless there are unlimited funds involved. Imagine if vouchers became available for special needs families, and parents could make a decision based on their child’s individual strengths and talents. Imagine what could happen, if we allowed multiple options for special needs to flourish and if necessary, fail. Failure is a dirty word in public education, but there is risk involved in all innovation. Don’t special ed students deserve innovation if their parents are willing to choose the risk? Since Secretary DeVos is obligated to follow IDEA and other federal law, shouldn’t we all – special education parents included – be willing to hear out her ideas on making education in the United States better? Nearly everyone agrees that education at best is stagnant, and at worst has declined within this country. Anyone who says that they care about that should be willing to look honestly at the reasons why, and want all options on the table to make it better.
3) Special education parents need to keep an open mind.
This includes me as well. Special ed parents have a tendency to become myopic and narrow, because we see absolutely everything through the lens of our child’s disability (and sometimes we even see our neurotypical or non-disabled children through the lens of their sibling’s disability, which is a whole different opinion post). With federal laws protecting special education in place, and with promised political death by a thousand knives for anyone who tries to repeal it, special ed parents need to think about more than their own child’s education. Betsy DeVos’s new job is to look at the big picture of public education in this country as a working whole. That’s why both Arne Duncan and Randi Weingarten approved of her going to see a public school in the DC area up close. Like it or not, she IS the Secretary of Education. It is up to all parents – both general ed and special ed – to keep the entire Education Department accountable. That is always our job, no matter which administration is in charge, Republican or Democrat.
Frankly, the reaction to DeVos’s nomination and confirmation has been weirdly outsized, given the level of actual influence and power she has as a Cabinet official. It’s actually a strange testament to just how powerful the federal government is perceived to be by the general public. DeVos now heads a department that, according to the 2015 Appropriations budget line, spends about $87.3 million dollars. (Special education dollars only run second behind Title 1 dollars in the budget breakdown, with a little over $12.5 million spent by the federal government.) By contrast, the IRS spent $11.4 billion in 2015. If money is power, the head of the IRS clearly has more of it than Betsy DeVos.
Parents should always be engaged in their child’s education, be it in a public or private school. Special education parents are generally even more engaged with our children’s education, because we know that we are building the foundations and skills for later achievements – and those achievements won’t look like their general education peers. If Betsy DeVos being Secretary of Education draws more parents’ attention – not just special ed parents – to how their tax dollars are being spent at the federal level, the improvements that need to happen within public schools, and allow greater innovation and options in education, then that is a GOOD thing. Everyone needs to take a deep breath, pay attention, and stay informed.
Or, in short, don’t panic.