My Take on the Betsy DeVos Hearing: Paging Blanche DuBois

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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 last night just slayed me. Senator 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 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 last evening’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 on 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 almost certainly 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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  • kallikak, January 18, 2017 @ 3:51 pm Reply

    So you finally discovered the limits of “choice” as applied to public education.

    Better late than never.

  • NJ Left Behind, January 18, 2017 @ 4:56 pm Reply

    Oh, I'm all for choice, Kallikak. Choice with accountability. That's how my son has progressed as well as he has.

  • kallikak, January 18, 2017 @ 6:14 pm Reply

    Not what I meant:

    Parents—possibly uninformed—can choose among rigged schooling options for their kids even if so doing undercuts public education = GOOD.

    States can choose to enforce (minimally or not) federal law even if it harms students with disabilities = BAD.

    verstehen Sie?

  • NJ Left Behind, January 18, 2017 @ 6:56 pm Reply

    So you're assuming that parents who choose — oh, let's say public charter schools — are “possibly uninformed” and incapable of detecting “rigged” propaganda? Maybe you should spend some time with the smart and savvy parents from Newark and Camden who vigorously support school choice.

    I believe that low-income parents who can't afford to buy into good school districts (NJ's primary form of school choice) should be able to choose among other public options. In NJ this means charters and our limited interdistrict school choice program. Verstehen sie?

  • kallikak, January 18, 2017 @ 7:49 pm Reply

    Maybe you should spend some time with the parents and kids left behind in decaying and underfunded public schools. The “smart and savvy” parents are clever enough to see their kids' conventional public schools as (intentionally) sinking ships. They've run for the (well-appointed) lifeboats.

    Unfortunately, your Lifeboat Theory of public education—i.e., save the few while further imperiling the many—just doesn't cut it.

    You got what you've been wishing for here—in spades—in Betsy DeVos.

    Why are you quibbling about the details?

  • Bob Bowdon, January 18, 2017 @ 9:24 pm Reply

    The definition of “Underfunded public schools,” used above, is the common “all district schools regardless of how much money they receive” — a.k.a. “any amount we receive, by definition, isn't enough.”

    Fortunately, this narrative's effectiveness at shaming an endless increase of public dollars thrown at district schools is in the rear view mirror. All of the country, parents are lining up by the millions for charter and voucher schools that spend far less per student. It's a fact that frustrates education establishment apologists who want to keep the conversation focused on “billionaires” because they have no answer for the continued increases in low-income parent demand for school choice.

  • kallikak, January 18, 2017 @ 11:07 pm Reply

    Are those “millions” going to receive the DeVos Treatment handed out in Detroit?

    Betsy's missionary zeal for vouchers and charter schools sans accountability has produced toxic outcomes in Michigan.

    The last thing we need is to replicate that experience across the country.

    P.S. Kids relegated to crumbling 100-year-old schools with out-of-date or missing text books are indeed the victims of underfunding. Funny how the charters promoted by folks like Christie and Norcross don't suffer those same indignities.

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