Skip to content

LETTER: Betsy DeVos to Senator Isakson on IDEA Enforcement

January 29, 2017

On January 28, 2017, Valerie Strauss posted a piece about a letter that Michigan billionaire and US ed sec nominee Betsy DeVos wrote to Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee member, Johnny Isakson (R-GA) regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

It is no secret that DeVos did not understand IDEA during her January 17, 2017 Senate HELP Committee hearing interactions with Senator Maggie Hassan. (View the DeVos-Hassan exchange below.)

Whether Isakson asked DeVos to clarify her position on IDEA or DeVos chose of her own volition to send her explanation to Isakson (and possibly other HELP members) is not clear. However, based on the text of the letter, it is clear that DeVos is trying to smooth over a rough moment in her hearing.

Before I comment further, it might be helpful for readers to view DeVos’ entire letter to Isakson.

The full text is as follows:

January 24, 2017

The Honorable Johnny Isakson
United States Senate
131 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Isakson,

Thank you for the opportunity to more fully explain my position on the importance of protecting the rights of students with disabilities and ensuring that they receive the quality education they need and deserve. I am committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard won rights of students with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, commonly called IDEA, protects the rights of students with disabilities to gain access to a high-quality education. I would like to address three specific aspects of IDEA: (1) the federal role in implementing IDEA, (2) the importance of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and (3) my passion for expanding educational options for parents who have a child with a disability.

Federal Role in Implementing IDEA

I believe that all students, including individuals with disabilities, deserve an equal opportunity to lead full, productive and successful lives. To that end, I am committed to supporting the remarkable parents and educators who make this vision a reality for students with disabilities in states and communities across our great nation. IDEA requires a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment for all students with disabilities.

At the federal level, we need to guide and monitor compliance while supporting states with the tools they need to help parents, schools, districts and other stakeholders succeed. For example, we must fund research and disseminate information about evidence based practices that work best for students with disabilities.

Individualized Educational Program (IEP)

At the federal level, we must encourage states to work with parents, schools and districts to create more effective IEPs that are useful for increasing learning gains for students with disabilities. IEPs must include measurable annual goals for monitoring progress and clear information for parents about student progress toward high but achievable expectations. The IEP should be viewed as a practical blueprint for action. Students with disabilities are accomplishing great things in states and districts that recognize their uniqueness. We can shine a light on these successes so that others know what is possible. If confirmed as Secretary, I will make it a priority to highlight what works best for students with disabilities.

Expanding Educational Options for Parents

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’s 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 the federal, state, and local levels; improving the quality of IEPs; and expanding the conversation about school choice opportunities for parents of students with disabilities.

To me, IDEA is a wonderful example of what happens when parents are regarded as full partners in their child’s educational decision-making.


Betsy DeVos



devos-to-isaakson  (Click image to enlarge)


A number of observations:

  • Excepting her section on her passion for vouchers, DeVos’ letter reads like a book report for an undergraduate Introduction to Education course.
  • I doubt that DeVos has ever seen an IEP, which is true of many who enroll in an undergraduate-level, Introduction to Education course.
  • I wonder if in discussing IDEA, DeVos conceives students who have any number of possible disabilities as an amalgam called “students with disabilities.” Yes, she mentions a young man with Down’s Syndrome in connection to her voucher plug, but the rest of her IDEA book report is a generalized, “students with disabilities” communication.
  • Her usage of popular terminology, such as “evidence based practices” is not only not reflected but grossly confronted in the reality of her overreaching-billionaire influence over public education in her home state of Michigan.
  • Even though she plays it off as “one additional strategy,” based upon her voucher-promoting history, DeVos’ principal goal as US ed sec would be to promote her “passion”– the shuttling of public money from public schools to private schools. She writes of “exciting changes in students with disabilities when they attend schools that meet their needs” in reference to students with disabilities’ attending private schools. The implied message is that private schools, not public schools, “meet the needs” of students with disabilities.

But here’s the major issue I have with her letter:

IDEA, with its “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE), applies to students enrolled in public schools. DeVos’ example of the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship (Ohio) as an example of how states “implement the federal law” is sketchy at best and intentionally misleading at worst.

From the Jon Peterson Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):

Can I use the JPSN Scholarship Program to supplement my child’s public education?

No. The scholarship is an educational choice program. If a student is approved for the scholarship, the public district is no longer responsible for providing a free and appropriate education (FAPE). The student must use the scholarship to obtain their education AND supportive services.

How should the district of residence address the scholarship on the child’s IEP if the child will be applying for the scholarship?

The district of residence must always write the IEP as if the district of residence would be implementing the IEP. There should be no mention of the JPSN scholarship program on the child’s IEP.

Does the provider have to accept my child for services?

A provider participating in the JPSN scholarship program is not required to accept a student who is eligible for the scholarship, nor is it required to alter any of its business practices or policies under the program. A parent/guardian must comply with all the provider’s policies.

If a provider participating in the JPSN scholarship program accepts a student, a parent/guardian must read and understand any contracts/agreements entered into with the provider. Parent/guardian must obtain written copies of any contracts/agreements entered with the school (e.g. tuition and fee schedules).

If the services rendered exceed the maximum amount per year for the JPSN scholarship, who is responsible for the costs of these services?

If the cost exceeds the maximum amount allowed per year based on the child’s special education category, the parent would be responsible for covering the additional cost.

If my child is receiving services on their IEP, are they required to attend school?

A child between six and eighteen years of age is “of compulsory school age”. Parents of children who are of compulsory age are obligated to ensure that their child receives instruction. Every child of compulsory school age shall attend a school or participate in a special education program that conforms to the minimum standards prescribed by the state board of education.

Many of the service providers who participate in the JPSN scholarship program provide specific services on the IEP do not provide minimum instruction. If your child is not attending a chartered non-public school, a non-chartered nonpublic school or an alternative public provider that offers a full educational program, then the parent is obligated to register their child as home schooled with their district of residence.

What services is my public school district responsible for providing?

By accepting the scholarship, you have relinquished your right to FAPE. Your district must renew your child’s IEP annually and conduct required evaluations, but the district is not required to provide any services to your child.

Can a public school be a provider?

Yes, a public school district or other public special education provider can register to provide services to children whose parents would owe fees for the services provided. For example, a school district could register to provide services to children in neighboring school districts.

So, the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship provides funds for parents to contract with a provider to have conditions of the IEP met as the student attends private school. The public school district still assumes the responsibility (and cost) of completing the IEP. Furthermore, if the services exceed the scholarship money (or if the provider does not provide the services noted on the IEP), then the parent could become responsible for paying the public school to provide services for a student who attends private school.

In other words, the private school is completely absolved of meeting the requirements of the IEP. Either a private provider does so, or the district of residence does so. Furthermore, the school district of residence remains responsible for drafting the IEP.

DeVos did not include these shady, IEP-implementation details in her letter assuring Isakson that as US ed sec she would, uh, implement and enforce IDEA and its attendant FAPE.

DeVos’ letter to Isakson settles no issues for me, a seasoned public school teacher who has had scores of IEPs cross my least-restrictive-environment, classroom desk.

betsy-devos-9  Betsy DeVos, as her Senate HELP hearing


Released July 2016– Book Three:

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of both A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.


  1. What do you think the chances are that Betsy DeVos personally wrote the book report/letter?

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Mercedes, FYI, The John H. Peterson Special Needs Scholarship would be eliminated if a bill pending in the legislature is passed. The bill would also eliminate the Educational Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, the Pilot Project Scholarship Program, and the Autism Scholarship Program Why?

    HB 628 is a draconian bill that would create a new system of funding schools where the “state pays a specified amount per student that each student may use to attend the public or chartered nonpublic school of the student’s choice, without the requirement of a local contribution.” Upshot: no local property taxes and elected school boards for districts. Federal and state money would go to sixteen existing Education Service Centers. These centers are governed by elected officials representing geographic areas of the state. Currently these ESC centers serve 614 Ohio public school districts.

    The centers cannot raise taxes. They earn their keep by fee-for service contracts, in addition to federal and state funds for specific programs. On average ESC’s state funding is about 23%, federal about 9%. About 65% of ESC funding is generated through fee-for-service contracts with school districts.

    ESCs are able to contrac for many services that a conventional school district might provide.Here you go:
    —Special Education Services: employ occupational and physical therapists, provide school psychology services, operate classroom cooperatives for students with emotional and multiple disabilities, operate preschool special education programs
    —Student Programs, operate gifted and talented programs; operate public preschools; operate Head Start programs, operate Alternative Schools; coordinate Dual Credit programs in partnership with districts, higher education and the state.
    —Cooperative Endeavors: establish insurance consortia on behalf of their districts; employ teachers, administrators and paraprofessionals in cooperation with school districts; administer state grants and federal title programs on behalf of school districts
    —Professional Development: provide professional development services; conduct leadership development; offer professional development for school improvement and for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment
    —Implement Federal and State Regulations: provide Bus Driver Certification and Physicals; operate the state’s 7 school bus driver training programs; assist districts and the state with teacher licensure; conduct FBI and other background checks; oversee homeschooling; provide school attendance officers; provide Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Training
    –Community Partnerships may: participate in Regional P-16 Councils; be members of Family and Children First Councils; operate and/or serve on Business Advisory Councils; participate in Workforce Development Boards; become involved with Community Foundations
    —ESCs can also provide customized services for: School Safety and Crisis Planning; Extended School Year Programs; Professional Learning Communities; Alternative Teacher Licensure for Foreign Languages; Behavior Intervention and Mental Health Services; Juvenile Court Liaisons; Educational Services to Juvenile Detention Centers and DYS Facilities; Summer and After School Enrichment Programs; School Nursing Programs; Social Work Services; Substitute Teacher and Substitute Aid Recruiting and Licensure; Adult Basic Education Programs.

    I am not certain how HB628 deals with teacher contracts, or how federal flows of “voucher” money would get to parents and/or “service providers.” I have no drive to look at the details of the bill but in addition to leaving local elected school boards with little reason to exist, it is not clear what budget authority is retained by the state-level School Board and Superintendent of Public Instruction.

  3. Rebekah Stark permalink

    Thank you for sharing this. As a parent of a child who currently has an IEP, I find Deovs’ views on education for children with disabilities appalling. Every child in this Country, no matter what, deserves the right to adequate education. Without it, how can we expect them to become successful adults?

  4. When you are as rich as DeVos, you don’t have to have knowledge; you simply pay for someone else to write your theory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s