In preparation for yesterday’s Senate HELP Committee confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, CEC sent a letter to the Senate HELP Committee members. The letter articulated CEC’s policies and positions on key issues in special and gifted education and early intervention and urged clarification of these issues by Mrs. DeVos during the hearing. The issues in CEC’s letter were numerous but, at the top of the list was the use of public funds to support private schools. CEC supports the core purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) including a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and protection of the rights of children and families among other purposes. CEC believes that vouchers that use public funds to support private schools both contradict and undermine central purposes of civil rights laws designed to protect children and youth with disabilities and their families. CEC supports state and local education agencies ability to provide school choice options such as Charter Schools within the public school system where taxpayer funds receive the maximum accountability. CEC has long standing Board approved statements on School Choice, School Vouchers and Charter Schools.
The HELP confirmation hearing began at 5:00 PM yesterday and ensued for more than 3 hours. Chairman, Lamar Alexander (R-TN) limited questioning to one round of 5 minutes for each senator. Democratic Senators objected to one round and made repeated requests for an additional round of questions for DeVos. Chairman Alexander refused, citing precedent from previous hearings particularly those during the Obama Administration. The Democrats also raised concerns that DeVos was the first nominee of the Trump Administration where a hearing was held without a final ethics review.
Chairman Alexander stated during the hearing that the vote of the HELP Committee is scheduled for next Tuesday only if a letter is received by this Friday from the Office of Government Ethics outlining any potential resolution for identified conflicts of interest for DeVos. Alexander felt this would allow sufficient time for Senate HELP Committee members to review the letter.
During the hearing DeVos said she would not seek to dismantle public schools but advocates for choice. Republicans on the Committee supported her leadership to expand charter schools and school vouchers. Democrats denounced her for wanting to “privatize” public education by diverting public money to private and religious schools.
Last night, Mrs. DeVos failed to answer basic questions about education and indicated that it should be optional for schools receiving federal money to comply with federal civil rights laws. Specifically, DeVos would not commit to enforcing federal special education law (IDEA) and seemed to be confused that states have to follow the federal law. Senator Kaine (D-VA) asked her whether all schools that receive taxpayer funding should meet the requirements of IDEA. “I think this is a matter better left to that states.” When questioned later in the hearing by Senator Hassan (D-NH) on the implementation IDEA, “Were you unaware that it is federal law?” DeVos answered: “I may have confused it.” DeVos also suggested that billions of dollars in federal IDEA funding could follow a child with a disability raising the issue of portability. It is unclear as to the position of DeVos on implementation of IDEA.
Toward the end of the hearing after some tough questions on IDEA from Senator Hassan Mrs. DeVos said “Senator, I assure you that if confirmed I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.” Senator Hassan quickly retorted, “With all due respect it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps, it’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high quality public education, and the reality is that the way the voucher systems that you have supported work don’t always come out that way. And that’s why it’s something we need to continue to explore. Thank you.”
CEC could not agree more with Senator Hassan!
CEC will continue to advocate to guarantee the civil rights of all children and youth with exceptionalities and their families, ensuring high-quality, evidence-based practices including individualized specialized services to support children and youth in their development and education and assist them in achieving positive educational, developmental and behavioral outcomes and results with the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of Education.
CEC will be sending a letter to the Senate HELP Committee members asking them to delay the vote on the confirmation of Mrs. DeVos until all questions posed by the HELP Committee members in writing, both before and after the hearing, are answered by DeVos and the letter is received from the Office of Government Ethics.