January 19, 2017

Prepared by Sarah Malaier

For more information, contact Mark Richert, Director of Public Policy, at mrichert@afb.net.

In the midst of the flurry of Senate confirmation hearings for President-Elect Trump’s cabinet nominees, one nomination in which we are sure many of you are particularly interested is the nomination of the Secretary of Education.  Because the Department of Education oversees the Office of Special Education Programs, funding for university personnel preparation programs, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program, and many other priorities, this department is especially important to our field.  Betsy DeVos has been nominated to lead the Department of Education, so we have taken the time to provide you with an overview of her answers to questions about issues that affect students with disabilities.

The following text is excerpted from the transcript of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education that took place on Tuesday, January 17, 2017, at 5:00 pm Eastern time.  These excerpts focus on questions related to students with disabilities and, in particular, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The text may contain transcription, typographical, and grammatical errors.  Links to video clips of each excerpt of the hearing from the C-SPAN website are also included.

Transcript Excerpts:

Link to Sen. Collins’ questions: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4649461/sen-collins-federalism-idea-funding

Sen. Collins: At what level of government do you believe that decisions about charter schools and vouchers should be made – is that a federal role or a state role?

Ms. DeVos: Thank you for that question. Let me say that I really enjoyed the conversation we had in your office. Let me respond to your question about federal versus state and local role by saying I absolutely support the fact it is a state role and state decision what kind of offering there might be with regards to choices and education. As we discussed in your office, Maine has a unique situation with students attending school on islands and in rural areas. To suggest that the right answer for Maine is the same as the right answer for Indiana or any state is just not right, and I would not support a federal mandate or federal role in dictating those.

Sen. Collins: I am glad to hear that. I have heard repeatedly from school officials, whether its teachers or superintendents or school board members, that the single most important action the federal government could take would be to fulfill the promise of the 1975 individuals with disabilities education act, to fund 40% of the additional cost of educating a special needs child. It has been many years since that law was passed. We have never come close to the 40%. Would you commit to taking a look at the funding of the department to see if we could do a better job of moving towards fulfillment of that promise? That is an action that would help every single school district in this country.

Ms. DeVos: Senator, absolutely I would commit to that if confirmed. I actually think this is an area that could be considered for an approach that would be somewhat different, and that maybe the money should follow individual students instead of going directly to the states. Again, I think that is something that we could discuss. I look forward to talking about that with the members of this committee.

[Later in the hearing.]

Link to Sen. Hassan’s questions: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4649467/sen-hassan-students-disabilities-k-12-voucher-programs

Senator Hassan. >> Thank you, Mr. Chair and ranking member Murray. I looking forward -- I look forward to working on this committee and appreciate the opportunity to participate. Mrs. DeVos, it is nice to see you again. Thank you for being here today, and your family as well. And I think all of us here share a commitment to public education and understand the essential nature to our democracy. I would echo my colleagues' call for another round at least of questioning, because I think our job here is not to talk about ideas but actually to drill down to how things actually work in practice. And so, I want to talk about one of those situations you begin to touch on in my office when we met. It has a little bit of what Senator Collins was talking about in terms of full commitment to our students with disabilities and what Senator Cassidy was talking about in terms of access to quality education for children with dyslexia.  My son, Ben, experiences very severe disabilities; he has cerebral palsy. He cannot speak or use his fingers for a keyboard, he can’t walk, but he is smart and the best kid on earth, if I do say so myself. He got a quality public education at our local school. He is a graduate of Exeter Area high school in Exeter New Hampshire. The reason He got there because countless advocates and champions before him worked so hard to make sure he had the right to that education. And I am concerned that when students who experience disabilities receive a publicly funded voucher to attend a private school, they often don't receive adequate resources and in some cases have to sign over their legal rights under the individuals with disabilities education act. Do you think family should have a recourse in the courts if their child's education does not adequately meet his or her needs, whether it’s at a school where they get a voucher or a more tradition public school?

Ms. DeVos: Thank you, Senator, for that question. […] Let me begin by saying I appreciate and am thankful that you have had the opportunity with your son ben to find the right setting for him and would advocate for all parents to be able to have that opportunity to choose the right school for them.

[Sen. Hassan interrupts] Sen. Hassan: Actually, I had the opportunity to send him to the same public school that my daughter went to, because law required that that school provide him resources that were never provided before that law was passed because they were was hard. So the question is, will you enforce the law with regard to kids with disabilities if the voucher program did allow them to go someplace else? And the school said, no, it is just too expensive, we don't want to do it.

DeVos: I think that there are great examples of programs that are already underway in states. Ohio has a great program, and, in fact, Sam and his mom are here today, beneficiary of the John Peterson special needs scholarship program.

Sen. Hassan: I understand that. But excuse me for interrupting. What I am asking you is, there is at least one voucher program in Florida which makes students sign away their rights before they can get that voucher. I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I think it will mean that students with disabilities cannot use a voucher system that a department under your leadership might start. So I want to know whether you will enforce and whether you will make sure that children with disabilities do not have to sign away their legal rights before they can get that voucher should a voucher system be developed.

Ms. DeVos: I’d love to comment about the McKay program where I believe 31,000 students are taking advantage, and 93% of the parents utilizing the voucher are very, very pleased with it. As opposed to 30% -- 

Sen. Hassan: I am sorry but that is not the question I asked. For right now, I will move on to one final question. I really do wish we had a second round. Because There is a lot here that is critical to our students especially with disabilities. With all due respect, Ms. DeVos, has not answered my question, but because we do not have a second round, I am trying to follow up on an answer you gave earlier. I understand that there is a foundation named for your parents, correct?

[Later in the hearing.]

Link to Sen. Kaine’s questions: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4649478/sen-kaine-federal-funding-requirements

Senator Kaine: Should all K-12 schools receiving governmental funding be required to meet the requirements of the individuals with disabilities education act?

Mrs. DeVos: I think they already are.

Senator Kaine: But I’m asking you a should question. Whether they are or not, we’ll get into that later. Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the individuals with disabilities in education act?

Mrs. DeVos: I think that is a matter is best left to the states.

Senator Kaine: So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, other states might not be so good, and then what, people can just move around the country if they don’t like the way their kid’s been treated?

Mrs. DeVos: I think that is an issue best left to the states.

Senator Kaine: What about the federal requirement? It’s a federal law. The individuals with disabilities education act. Let's limit it to federal funding. If schools receive federal funding, should they be required to follow federal law? Whether they are public, public charter, or private?

Mrs. DeVos: As the Senator referred to – at the Florida program, there are many parents who are happy with the program there.

Senator Kaine: Let me say this, I think all schools that receive federal funding, public, public charter, or private, should be required to meet the conditions the individuals with disabilities and education act. Do you agree with me or not?

Mrs. DeVos: I think that is certainly worth discussion, and I would look forward to 

Senator Kaine: So you cannot yet agree with me. And finally, should all schools that receive federal funding be required to report the same information instances of harassment, discipline, or bullying if they receive federal funding.

Mrs. DeVos: I think that federal funding certainly comes with strings attached.

Senator Kaine: I think all such schools that receive federal funding should be required to report on instances of harassment and bullying, and you agree with me on that?

Mrs. DeVos: I would look forward to reviewing that provision.

Senator Kaine: […] It's not a court, you're not under oath, not under subpoena, but you are trying to win my vote. Thanks, Mr. Chairman.

[Later in the hearing.]

Link to Sen. Murkowski’s question: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4649495/sen-murkowski-rural-schools-limited-options-civil-rights-students-disabilities

Senator Murkowski: […] This was something that was brought up at the Q & A session in Anchorage. A concern that there would not be an effort to match that accountability to those schools that received federal funding, either through a voucher program, a federal match, an education savings account but, that in addition to performance standards, that there would be true accountability with adhering to federal laws for civil rights as well as students with disabilities. So, I will ask for continuation of that discussion. You have provided some very responsive comments, that I think will help our teachers in Alaska, where their options are very limited. How can you provide assurance to these teachers, families, and students, for whom alternatives and options are severely limited, not because we don't want them, but because our geography isolates us?

Mrs. DeVos: Thank you for that question. I really appreciated our conversation and a review of the map because it does remind us of the unique challenges that Alaska has. I would say that I can assure you that, if confirmed, I will support Alaska and its approach to educating its youngsters. I have to say, I think the creativity and innovation that Alaska has employed through the traditional public system is one that other states can probably take note of and learn some lessons from, and would hope that they continue to feel that freedom and that drive to continue to educate and innovate. [Ms. DeVos gave no response regarding disability.] 

[Later in the hearing.]

Link to Sen. Hassan’s second round of questions: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4649501/sen-hassan-follow-up-states-idea

Senator Hassan: I want to go back to the individuals with disabilities in education act. That is a federal civil rights law. Do you stand by your statement that it should be up to the states whether to follow it?

Ms. DeVos: Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.

Senator Hassan: So, were you unaware, when I just asked you about the IDEA, that it is a federal law?

Mrs. DeVos: I may have confused it.

Senator Hassan: It guarantees absolutely basic protections to students with disabilities to ensure that they are afforded a high-quality education with their peers -- one of the reasons it is difficult to have this hearing and feel that we fully understand your perspective – is because we do know that children with disabilities in at least some of the voucher programs that you have supported have gone with a voucher to a school. Because of their disability, they had to leave the school, the school keeps the money, and they go back to public schools, that now have even less resources to deal with them. And many of us see that as the potential to turn ours schools into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities or other kinds of particular issues. Or, the kids whose parents cannot afford to make up the difference between the voucher and the cost of private school tuition. So I just would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the individuals with disabilities in education act. I'm concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and you seem to support vouchers rules that have not honored, that have made students sign away their rights to make sure that this law is enforced. That is very troubling to me.

Mrs. DeVos: Senator, I assure you that I, if I am confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of the special needs students and the policies surrounding them.

Senator Hassan: With all due respect, it is not about sensitivity, although that helps. It is about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child, that every child, has the same access to public education, a high-quality public education. The reality is the way that the voucher programs that you support have not always come out that way. That is why it is something we need to continue to explore.

Senator Alexander: Thank you to Senator Hassan and Senator Murray.


If you would like to hear more of the hearing for yourself, you may view the entire hearing on the Senate HELP Committee page at http://www.help.senate.gov/hearings/nomination-of-betsy-devos-to-serve-as-secretary-of-education or on C-SPAN at https://www.c-span.org/video/?421224-1/education-secretary-nominee-betsy-devos-testifies-confirmation-hearing&live.