Skip to main content

Special Education in the Era of Betsy DeVos

Dean Traylor splits his time being a special education teacher and a freelance writer.

“…Best left up to the states,” quipped future U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during her 2017 Senate confirmation hearing.

This was the answer she gave to Senator Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) who asked her how she was going to enforce the federal laws affecting special education programs and the rights of students with disabilities in the country’s public school system.

In an attempt to rectify a disastrous hearing, she later recanted by stating the inquiry had her “confused," and that she would enforce the laws. Still, that was not enough to deflect the growing criticism leveled at DeVos.

For those involved in special education—albeit teachers, specialists, students, and parents—the confirmation hearing did not fill them with confidence toward the person slated to be the nation’s next top education administrator. To them, it was an unintended confession that she knew very little about this particular sector of public education (let alone, her understanding of federals laws for education in general).

Laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA), and (to some extent), American With Disabilities Act (ADA) are federal laws meant to ensure the civil rights and due process of law for students and individuals with learning, physical or intellectual disabilities. IDEA, in particular, is coordinated with state education departments; however, the U.S. Department of Education (through its Office of Civil Rights) finance and enforce it.

The hearings were in 2017; fast forward to 2018. What has DeVos done to address the needs of special education? While there have been a few bright spots, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. And to make matters worse, it doesn’t appear that preservation of special education and the laws associated with it is at the top of DeVos’s agenda.

A Controversial Appointment

DeVos has always been a controversial figure. She became Education Secretary by the slimmest of margins. It took Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm her appointment. Simply put, the senate hearing, as a whole, didn’t help garner her overwhelming support from senators. Not only did she stumble on questions pertaining to special education, but she also floundered on numerous topics such as school accountability, student assessments, safety, and financial aid for colleges.

On top of that, she entered the position having virtually no experience in anything dealing with public school education. She never held the position of teacher, administrator, or state superintendent before ascending to the highest post in education. Some critics claimed that she never set foot in a public school as a student, either.

The latter criticism has some validity. DeVos came from a prominent family with direct ties to the fortunes of the Michigan-based Multilevel marketing behemoth, Amway. Many reports indicated she was educated in private schools—both K-12 and college.

Her reputation centered on her advocacy. She led a group that pushed for school choice in her home state of Michigan. This led to the proliferation of charter schools and vouchers for private schools in the state.

It also led to the demise of several public schools and public school programs. Her push for school choice forced budget cuts in the state’s education. Money meant for public schools went toward funding vouchers and the proliferation of charter schools.

In Detroit, alone, many elementary, middle schools, and high schools had to drastically slash their budgets

She touted charter schools as being superior to public school; however, many reports suggest that the edge charter school students had on their public school counterparts was at or slightly above average. In some cases, the charter schools—especially the ones she championed—performed well below expectations.

Still, the school choice initiative grew in the state and siphoned off money from public schools that needed it. In Detroit, alone, many elementary, middle schools, and high schools had to drastically slash their budgets. Others deemed “under-performing” shuttered their doors in droves.

The Promise and Problems of Charter Schools and Vouchers

As mentioned, charter schools and school vouchers are at the heart of DeVos’s initiatives. Succinctly speaking, it’s part of an effort to privatize the nation’s school system. So what are they?

Charter schools exist as an imbalanced hybrid of public and private education. In many cases, public school districts fund the schools and supply the students while corporate officials specializing in these types of schools (i.e., Green Dot) create the curriculum. Despite public funding, these schools don’t have to adhere to all state standards or federal guidelines in education. In practice, they are more private than public.

As the name implies, private school is privatization to its core. Parents must pay for tuition. Many types of private schools exist (including those that cater to students with disabilities); however, parochial schools tend to be more common—and favored by DeVos and her cohorts. On top of that, nearly all private schools are expensive.

The supposed remedy for high tuition costs is a publicly funded (and regulated) system. This controversial system is known as the voucher system. In theory, vouchers, paid through public funding, compensate parents for private school tuition. In reality, the vouchers cover part of the cost, and parents still pay exorbitantly for the chance to have their children enrolled in schools touted to be some of the best in the nation.

Scroll to Continue

How do these two systems benefit students with disabilities and their parents? As a whole, they don’t. Despite the existence of private and parochial schools specializing in special education, few of them exist. And of those in existence, many may focus on a particular disability such as the visual/hearing impaired or autism. Often, this means parents for these students have to shop around to find the ideal school that's closest to them.

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

On the other hand, charters schools traditionally don’t have special education programs. Enrollment tends to be based on lottery systems or applications. The application process can be very selective, resulting in high achievers getting admitted rather than struggling students with learning disorders.

Students with disabilities may get into a charter school through the lottery system, but they may not get the services they need. Charters schools don’t have to follow the guidelines stipulated by federal laws such as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This includes providing accommodations, modifications written into the contract known as the individual education plans (IEPs). Traditional public schools throughout the country must adhere to this law.

Due to the lack of special education programs at charter schools, students with disabilities drop out or dis-enroll from these schools. Their choice is to return to their home school—the nearest public school to them—in their neighborhood. This is not an easy task. In many cases, the students returning will have to catch up with their peers in the curriculum, and may face the dilemma of being misplaced (often charter schools don’t keep a record of special education courses the students took before entering their program).

DeVos Approach to Special Education

More than a year has passed since the infamous confirmation hearing. DeVos’s unpopularity hasn’t wavered among the nation’s educators. Neither has her devotion to privatize the nation’s education system.

Her view on special education has slightly evolved. In many respects, she seemingly addressed some unfair practices affecting students with disabilities through state education programs. But, if one is expecting that her revelation on the matter had a positive outcome, think again. It’s been a matter of the good, the bad, and the unsettling.

...the Texas Education Agency illegally placed caps that limited the percentage of students that can be identified as having a disability.

The Good

Texas had a problem. According to a Jan. 11, 2018 US News and World Report article, the Texas Education Agency illegally placed caps that limited the percentage of students that can be identified as having a disability.

“Every child with a disability must have appropriate access to special education and related services that meet his or her unique needs,” DeVos was reported to have stated about the incident. “Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under IDEA.”

This was the result of a year and a half long investigation by the department’s Office of Civil Rights. Although the investigation was a continuation from the previous administration, DeVos had her moment to shine and she took advantage of that.

A second significant thing to happen under her guidance (at least for special education)—but not directly by her own design—was the appointment of John Collett to oversee special education for the Department of Education. According to Ed Week’s April 2018 online publication, Collett has experience as a special education teacher, administrator, and director of special education for the state of Kentucky. The online article also mentioned that he is a “rare point of agreement between the Trump administration and the disability-advocacy community.”

For DeVos, this is a positive appointment because it gives her someone within her department with the expertise to coordinate the program.


The Bad

Despite Collett and the verdict in Texas, special education faces huge hurtles under DeVos. She hasn’t abandoned her pet project of privatizing education. In addition, it appears she’s going after policies created during the Obama administration. And it’s these changes that have the most disturbing effect on students with special needs.

The first salvo in this assault on special education came in late October 2017. Washington Post reported that the Department of Education (through suggestions from the department’s Office of Special Education Programs and Rehabilitation Services Administration) deemed 72 guidance documents—described as being “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective,”—to be rescinded. The October 21 article also reported that many of these guidelines “fleshed out students’ rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act," or established outlines on “how schools could use federal money for special education.”

In many respects (according to several reports), the elimination of these guidelines will have minimum effects on special education programs. Updated guidelines or procedures replaced them several years ago. Still, it set a precedent that nothing was going to be safe, including rules meant to enforce the civil rights of students with disabilities.

Her next move, however, was a major one. According to Michelle Diament's March 21 article from the website, Disability Scoop, DeVos told a House of Representative Appropriations subcommittee she was planning on “sticking by her agency’s plan to pause an Obama-era rule designed to make sure kids from certain backgrounds aren’t wrongly placed in special education.”

“The delay is to ensure that we have a regulation that really does meet the needs of students that are disabled in any way.”

— Betsy DeVos

“Wrongly placed” refers to students who fall within several disadvantaged ethnic and economic groups that have been placed in large numbers in special education programs. A major complaint is that these students may have been placed there unfairly and that more provisions are needed to ensure that they have been appropriately placed. This has been a major problem in special education for decades.

The Obama guidelines—known as the “significant disproportionality” rule—had been finalized in the final months of his administration and was slated to take effect on July 1 of this year. DeVos proposed to delay this by two years ( Michelle Diament, 2018).

According to the article, DeVos reasoned: “The delay is to ensure that we have a regulation that really does meet the needs of students that are disabled in any way.”

In the same meeting that was reported in the article, another concern emerged. DeVos was grilled by Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Washington) about the use of restraints and seclusion as punitive actions against students with disabilities.

Such incidents are supposed to be tracked by her department’s Office for Civil Rights. Since taking office, such reports have been scant for unspecified reasons, leading to speculation that such abuses are going unreported.

When Herrera Buetler asked for clarification, DeVos replied, “I am aware of this issue, this claim. We’ll certainly look into the ways that we can continue to insist and ensure that states are appropriately addressing and reporting these situations.”

In late April 2018, the Office of Civil Rights finally released their reports on the restraints and seclusion of students with disabilities. Based on stats collected from the 2015–16 school year, students with disabilities were more likely to be disciplined—in many cases using controversial methods of restraints and seclusion—at higher rates than their non-disabled peers did.

The Unsettling

Issues with DeVos’s handling of special education doesn’t stop there. According to a June 1, 2018 article on Disability Scoop, lawyers representing groups advocating for students with disabilities filed a lawsuit that accused federal educations officials—including DeVos—of illegally altering the way they handle discrimination complaints at schools.

The lawsuit (according to the article) alleges the Department of Education of “skirting its obligation to investigate complaints of disability and race-based discrimination in the nation’s schools.” This comes after an updated manual from the department purportedly instructed its Office of Civil Rights to dismiss several complaints made by individuals or groups that supposedly “places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.”

Other factors seem to have created more uncertainty, not just for special education, but the entire department. As of this writing, DeVos and the Trump Administration have done the following:

  • Tried to slash funding for traditional public school education programs while trying to funnel money toward her school choice initiative (it failed).
  • Discuss proposals to merge the Department of Education with the Department of Labor in an attempt to streamline federal positions.
  • Delay more Obama era rules pertaining to education including guidelines for states to write and implement standards.
  • According to a June 7, 2018 Disability Scoop article, the Department has “quietly renegotiated” several disability-related civil rights agreements with schools throughout the country.
  • DeVos has not made much of a presence before congress as her predecessor had done.

Her last testimony to congress doesn’t fill one with hope. When asked about her stance and obligation to adhere to special education laws, DeVos gave an ambiguous blanket statement, that she and her department were going to honor the laws and ensure that students with disabilities were protected. No plans to do this were given, and little is known if she has a better understanding of the role of the federal government in certain educational programs such as special education.

After more than a year, DeVos’s education in special education can be best described as incomplete and “with little effort” to complete the process.

Although her department appears to be honoring some rules, it’s ultimately trying to delay or reverse others. In the end, there’s a lot of uncertainty that DeVos and the department she leads will protect the rights of students with disabilities to get a free and appropriate education—better known as FAPE, a major goal of IDEA. Then again, it’s doubtful she’s heard of FAPE.

Update 2019: DeVos Takes Aim at Special Olympics and Special Education

On March 26, 2019, DeVos went before a congressional subcommittee to justify proposed budgetary cuts to public education funding. The cuts she proposed were estimated at $7 billion dollars. Of these proposed cuts—and the one that received much of the attention—was a proposal to eliminate $18 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics.

Although the Special Olympics is partially funded by private organizations, the federal dollars support a huge portion of the organization's operations.

In addition, the cuts to education would slash funding for various special education programs, which includes millions for programs catering to students with visual impairment/blindness.

Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a House Appropriation subcommittee member, grilled her on the proposals. He asked her if she knew how many students would be affected. She didn’t know.

“I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget. You zero that out. It’s appalling.”

— Rep.Barbara Lee, (D-CA)

Pocan (who has a family member diagnosed with Autism) responded:

“I’ll answer it for you, that’s O.K. no problem, " he said. "It’s 272,000 kids that are affected.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), also commented on the matter.

“I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget. You zero that out,” Lee said. “It’s appalling.”

The response DeVos made in the matter was evasive: “Supporting children with special needs, we have continued to hold that funding at a level amount and in the context of a budget proposal that is a 10 percent reduction.”

Takeaways From DeVos Confirmation Hearing

© 2018 Dean Traylor


Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on March 27, 2019:

Article updated to include the recent congressional hearing in which DeVos was questioned for proposing cuts to special education programs the total elimination of funding for the Special Olympics.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on October 28, 2018:

Just another Trump political appointee with her own agenda to dismantle the government department that she is in charge of. I am beyond disgusted.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on June 28, 2018:

Of course, education is becoming politicized. Everything today is a political football to be tossed about. It seems that the pendulum swings back and forth to land in an extreme direction. When my two boys were in school, the meager education dollars seemed to be spent on special education, and bright children like mine were left out with no place to help them with their talents. Now it seems to be going in the other direction. One can only hope that one day the pendulum will get hung up in the middle. But it's a no-brainer that de Vos is uneducated when it comes to education.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 27, 2018:

It is sad when educaton instead of helping the kids is used for political goals. It is such an important component in the lives of children that it should be placed in the hands of those who have the understanding, knowledge and especially the decency to do what is right for the kids.

Related Articles