Next Tuesday, the Senate will vote on Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. You doubtless read about her privatization of Michigan’s charter schools. You probably also read that she “may have confused” the fact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a requirement of federal, not state, law. But for students with disabilities, it gets worse.
IDEA is a federal law implemented at the local level. Congress has never appropriated more than a small fraction of the dollars necessary to fulfill the law’s requirement of a “free appropriate public education” for all students, regardless of disability. If congressional Oscars were awarded for each year’s “most egregiously unfunded mandate,” IDEA’s budget would be Meryl Streep. In 2016, Congress put up only 16% of the money necessary to implement the law it requires the states to follow.
The federal requirements are also broad, and open to interpretation. One key issue: how much progress should a disabled student be expected to make from year to year in order for it to be “adequate” under the law?
This year, the Supreme Court is deciding a case from Colorado that will determine whether students must make “substantial” progress, “more than de minimis” progress, or some other level of progress to be defined. This question is crucial for schools and families, because it determines the kind and level of services kids get in schools, and how much those services cost.
Once the Court decides the legal standard for adequate progress, then the US Department of Education will be responsible for enforcing it, in two ways. The Department writes new federal regulations, which tend to get copied or incorporated by reference in state regulations, which set school policy. And the Office of Civil Rights enforces education discrimination laws by investigating parent complaints.
Betsy DeVos will be taking over the Department of Education at a pivotal moment in the history of special education law. The new Supreme Court decision may have a profound impact on how states, and schools, provide services for disabled kids nationwide. If we have an Education Secretary who believes the states should decide these matters, then the federal regulatory enforcement role, the federal enforcement role, and the federal funding role, could all go from twilight into full eclipse. States with robust special education funding and strong state lobbies, like California and New York, would continue to serve their disabled student populations. States with weaker funding streams and less commitment would fail these students entirely. Levels of discrimination, unequal treatment, and denial of basic rights would increase.
These days there’s so much to oppose, and so much action to take, it makes your head spin and you stomach turn. But here’s another one. One note of “optimism” to consider: disability crosses party lines. Coalitions on this issue are possible where other battles are more firmly entrenched. Your Senator’s position may surprise you. The link for more info, with a list of HELP Senate committee members, is below. The deadline is Tuesday.