Tuesday the U.S. Senate will vote on Donald Trump’s candidate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. DeVos’ answers during her Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month galvanized disability rights groups, who were horrified by her seeming ignorance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When the law was passed in 1975, only 20% of all disabled children in the U.S. had access to public education. Thirty organizations, ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, signed a letter sent to the Senate Committee on Tuesday, requesting a delay of the vote on DeVos until she has answered more specific questions regarding the federal law. DeVos sent a letter to the Committee chair on the same day, endeavoring to clarify her positions.
This all occurred the day after disability rights and issues disappeared from the White House website. Disability Scoop reports:
The outgoing administration’s site featured information on expanding education and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a video tour of the White House in sign language, among other materials.
Now, however, links to the disability pages return an error… Searches for disabilities or disability on the new version of whitehouse.gov yield just nine results including two related to Grover Cleveland.
The American Association of People with Disabilities and other advocacy groups said DeVos’ letter failed to allay their concerns. DeVos has a long history of promoting school voucher systems, which use public funds to send children to private schools, while requiring families to waive rights and protections they are afforded by the IDEA. Because school voucher systems promote free enterprise for school administrators over adherence to federal guidelines, they have their roots in the states most famous for advocating on behalf of states’ rights. Florida has the oldest school voucher program for disabled students in the U.S. and in 2011 a Miami newspaper uncovered widespread corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was banned in schools in the counties in question, but teachers in the voucher system insisted they were not bound by any government law. Pro-voucher system sites insist the rate of corporal punishment is lower than in public schools in Florida, which does not ban corporal punishment statewide.
Independent disability advocacy organizations have generally argued that the voucher system has yet to prove helpful to those they represent. Disabled citizens, after all, are the first to be harmed by a system that encourages competition based on individual ability over universal civil rights protections. A study by the National Council on Disability concluded:
…it is not at all clear whether existing private schools want to serve students with disabilities or indeed can provide their specialized services and needed supports in the absence of the kind of critical mass enjoyed by school districts. IDEA, for example, recognizes the importance of family participation in the child’s educational plan, but also legitimizes the expertise of specialized staff and personnel who have specific knowledge and competencies for providing a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. To place the burden on parents to seek out a private alternative to provide the kind of specialized educational program needed to serve their students with disabilities may be unreasonable. In Florida, the special education vouchers are apparently providing the stimulus for new schools to come into existence to serve only students with disabilities. This movement, however, could reverse the scientifically documented findings supporting the provision of educational services to students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment of inclusive opportunities. The end result of large-scale voucher extensions to students with disabilities could lead to a new kind of institutionalization at public expense.
To be fair, the parents of many students with disabilities in the United States advocate for voucher systems. American conservatives tend to show more support for voucher programs out of a preference for the free market over government regulation and/or for specific religious instruction over an unaffiliated curriculum. These preferences also motivated the primarily conservative opposition to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post argued earlier this week that criticism of the voucher system is bipartisan because both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for weakening public education as a civic institution over the past two decades, ultimately paving the way for candidates like DeVos.