As a former student with disabilities, who had to pack up and move to another state with my parents in search of good schools, I find Education nominee Betsy DeVos' cavalier attitude towards equal access to education appalling.
President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, billionaire school “reform” activist Betsy DeVos, evinced a number of confounding and troubling views at her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, including that schools should allow guns to protect students from grizzly bears; a clear lack of understanding of the difference between student proficiency and student growth; and a refusal to say whether or not she would enforce laws to protect campus sexual assault survivors.
And one of the most disturbing things to come out of the hearing was DeVos’ answer to a question from Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) about access to good schools for students with disabilities:
KAINE: Let me move to my next question. Should all K-12 schools receiving governmental funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
DEVOS: I think they already are.
KAINE: But I’m asking you a “should” question. Whether they are or not, we’ll get into that later. Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
DEVOS: I think that’s a matter that’s best left to the states.
KAINE: So some states might be good to kids with disabilities and other states might not be so good, and then what? People can just move around the country if they don’t like how their kids are being treated?
DEVOS: I think that’s an issue best left to the states.
Put aside, for a moment, the fact that it is federal law for all states to cover special education and DeVos does not seem to understand that.
I myself have experienced exactly what DeVos so nonchalantly endorsed: My parents had to move me across the country in search of good schools.
I have written previously about my experience growing up on the autism spectrum, through childhood and beyond. One of the biggest challenges my family faced was finding a school environment in which I could succeed.
Texas has a terrible special education system which was no better in the late 1990s. From the outset of my experiences in preschool, my parents knew that I was not going to get the help I needed in public schools. I found myself shuffled through a series of private schools, many of which were ostensibly for students with disabilities but which offered no individualized attention of any kind.
One of these schools had classes where we did nothing except watch videos. In another, I would be whisked away into a quiet room and left by myself whenever I was overwhelmed by the environment. Yet another of the schools was just one woman who taught out of her house and spent half the day reading Bible stories to the students.
Ultimately, after four straight years of my education being disrupted, my parents had to take me out of Texas entirely, away from all of our friends, and enroll me in public school in Concord, Massachusetts.
These are formative years in a child’s life. Lack of access to a decent school, particularly if a child has special needs, can be permanently life-altering.
And even if parents have the money and career prospects to just pick up and move to another state, as my parents did, many school districts have residency requirements that prevent students from receiving an Individualized Education Plan and other necessary special education resources until they have lived there long enough, costing children with disabilities even more time.
This, above all, is why it is a federal requirement for states to give all disabled students access to special education. That DeVos does not seem to know or care about this should in and of itself disqualify her from being Secretary of Education.