LETTER: Betsy DeVos to Senator Isakson on IDEA Enforcement
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.
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.
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.
Released July 2016– Book Three:
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?.
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