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Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Department Nominee, Makes Me Nervous for All the Children Like My Son Who Have Special Needs

I’ve tried to be open-minded about Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. Many people I respect view her as a potentially powerful voice for school choice and, I reasoned, at least she’s no Jeff Sessions. But her confirmation hearing  Tuesday night just slayed me.

Sen. Al Franken’s elicitation of her lack of understanding between growth and proficiency, her disdain for gun-free school zones (in front of a Newtown representative, no less), her view of sexual assault on campuses, her refusal to assure Sen. Tim Kaine that she would hold all schools that receive public funds—traditional, public charter, private, parochial—to the same standards of accountability: Shall we count the ways she equivocated on civil rights, equity, safety and basic comprehension of pressing educational matters?

But the killer for me was DeVos’ complete ignorance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

Now, to be clear, I’m a special pleader. My younger son has multiple disabilities stemming from a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome. Without IDEA—a 1975 federal law that mandates that every state must provide every child eligible for special education services with a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment”—my son’s New Jersey school district, under the canopy of local control, could have shut him out.

Without the federal oversight and state accountability inscribed in No Child Left Behind and its offspring the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA), my son’s potential for academic growth could have been ignored because he wouldn’t count in annual reports of student proficiency.

DeVos’ limited understanding of IDEA seems to presage a global ignorance of the role of the federal government in ensuring accountability for special needs kids, as well as other traditionally-disenfranchised groups like low-income students, students of color, and English-language learners. To borrow Tennessee Williams’ tagline for Blanche DuBois, DeVos would leave them dependent on the kindness of strangers.

From Politico’s summary of Tuesday night’s hearing:

DeVos shocked some education policy wonks tonight when she suggested that states should decide when schools must comply with requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. DeVos later she said she “may have” been confused about the federal law.

The discussion began when Sen. Tim Kaine asked DeVos whether all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be required to meet the requirements of special education law.

‘I think that is a matter better left to the states,’ DeVos responded.

The exchange prompted gasps from some watching the confirmation. Sen. Maggie Hassan then followed up, noting that IDEA is federal law and ‘federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.’ ‘Were you unaware that it is federal law?’ Hassan asked.

‘I may have confused it,’ DeVos said.

“I may have confused it”? Seriously? I almost felt sorry for her, sent into the lion’s den of a Congressional hearing without (apparently) any preparation for answering basic questions about how she would lead the U.S. Department of Education.

I keep flashing to a scene from the movie Game Change, adapted from the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Nicole Wallace, who is assigned to manage Sarah Palin, confronts Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s senior campaign strategist, after she discovers that Palin is grossly ignorant about basic foreign and domestic policy. Schmidt admits that Palin wasn’t properly vetted and is, in fact, a disaster for the campaign.

DeVos isn’t a disaster for Trump. She’ll probably be confirmed and, remarkably, is one of his more moderate nominees. I don’t care that she’s rich or that she sent her kids to private school. I assume that someone will enlighten her on educational policy, the role of the federal government, and her responsibility for upholding ESSA and other federal mandates like IDEA.

But, yet, I can’t help but think about my son and his grim prospects without the role of federal intervention. I can’t help but think about DeVos’ evangelism for states’ rights and local control. Do we really want to live in a country where one state can opt to stick special needs kids in the attic while another state embraces them, a world where children with disabilities are dependent upon the kindness of strangers?

Not me.

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