Based on their track records or stated policy positions, several of President Trump’s confirmed and soon-to-be-confirmed cabinet heads will share a rather unique approach to their new positions: They may seek to undercut the mission statements of their own departments. Among this rarified company, newly confirmed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, further distinguishes herself with a lack relevant experience and qualifications to direct and supervise the department she’ll be leading. DeVos lacks a degree in education, professional experience working in schools, and even a basic familiarity with the United States public school system that educates approximately ninety-percent of K-12 students.
Something particularly concerning to the field of special education occurred during DeVos’ confirmation hearing: Under questioning it became apparent that she hadn’t heard of and knew nothing about the landmark piece of civil rights education legislation termed the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA), which serves children with disabilities and those at-risk for developing them. Built on the jurisprudence of federal and state-level case law that determined education in America should be treated not merely as a privilege but as a right under the “equal protection clause“ of the 14th amendment, the passage of IDEA provided this previously grossly underserved population – only 20% of whom were enrolled in school in 1970 – with the federally protected right to a free, publicly-funded education (FAPE). It originally passed in Congress over forty years ago as the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act” in 1975. And yet until it was made clear to DeVos during her hearing that IDEA was actually a federal law, she said its enforcement was “a matter that is best left to the states.”
Until it was made clear to DeVos during her hearing that IDEA was actually a federal law, she said its enforcement was ‘a matter that is best left to the states.’
DeVos’ views on education, along with the role that individual states should take in providing education, are very similar to those of President Trump and other Republicans. She might even be called Trump’s “avatar” when it comes to education policy. After initially threatening to eliminate or drastically cut federal funding to the Department of Education, Trump’s September 2016 education plan proposed a popular remedy to what Republican legislators view as federal overreach in education policy and a stagnant public education marketplace lacking competition: the reallocation of a significant portion of federal funds for public schools into “block grants“ that states could use at their own discretion to finance public, charter, private, or online learning.
The 2016 GOP platform goes further by proposing an amendment to the US Constitution that would limit federal or state oversight of these programs. It’s right up DeVos’ alley. The Michigan billionaire and Republican fundraiser has spent her philanthropic career promoting so-called “school choice” designed to steer taxpayer money away from public schools toward private schools, parochial schools, and charter schools that were publicly funded but privately run. According to a year long investigation by The Detroit Free Press, over the last twenty years she was largely successful in complementing Detroit’s own beleaguered public school system with “a second, privately managed failing system” that set no qualifications for charter applicants, received minimal ongoing oversight, and offered no consequences for poor performance.
Although what DeVos, Congress, and President Trump accomplish remains to be seen, allowing states to use federal funds to privatize large swaths of their education programs is unlikely to benefit the approximately 1-in-8 school children who are presently served under IDEA with some form of special education services. Public school special education programs, which currently receive less than half of the 40 percent of special education funding that was promised under the original IDEA mandate, would be further crippled in states with weak special education programs. Some private schools may fill this education gap, but for-profit schools that could play a prominent role in this free-market landscape are unlikely to do the same.
State-run public school systems could simply ignore — or at least practice far less compliance with — the educational and procedural requirements of IDEA.
The education of children with disabilities costs on average more than twice as much as that of typically developing children, representing a poor return-on-investment. In order to stay in business and run a profit, it’s difficult to imagine most of these schools would be able to provide children with disabilities the free, high quality, individualized academic support they need and deserve. Nor would these schools be required to. As the “Council for Exceptional Children“ (CEC), a prominent advocacy organization for special education has explained, families of students who receive vouchers for private schools discard rights to a free-publicly funded education (FAPE) afforded to them under IDEA.
Either reduced oversight by the federal government, or a repealed, weakened, or simply unenforced IDEA would be very likely to exacerbate already depressed educational options within states with poor educational infrastructure. Alternatively, states not wishing to comply with IDEA could exercise their right to opt-out of this discretionary grant program, (although none currently do), just as some states exercised their right to opt-out of ObamaCare’s Medicaid program against their own financial interest. In any of these scenarios, state-run public school systems could simply ignore — or at least practice far less compliance with — the educational and procedural requirements of IDEA. This likely wouldn’t relegate special education back to the pre-IDEA era when a majority of children with special needs were entirely excluded from schools.
Still, it would very likely lead to widespread failures to adequately serve children with disabilities. Such an example was recently uncovered in Texas. An in-depth investigation by The Houston Chronicle revealed that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) set an arbitrary 8.5 percent benchmark for inclusion in special education programs beginning in 2004. While saving TEA billions of dollars, it denied vital support to an estimated 250,000 children with special needs. That’s tens-of-thousands of children who were denied federally mandated opportunities to benefit from school that would prepare them for becoming active, engaged members of a democratic society in pursuit of lives that built on potentially stronger skill sets. Under a DeVos administration, such stories may become far more common.