LETTER: Betsy DeVos To Senator Isakson On IDEA Enforcement

On January 28, 2017, Valerie Strauss posted a piece about a letter that Michigan billionaire and US ed sec nominee Betsy DeVos wrote to Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee member, Johnny Isakson (R-GA) regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

It is no secret that DeVos did not understand IDEA during her January 17, 2017, Senate HELP Committee hearing interactions with Senator Maggie Hassan. (View the DeVos-Hassan exchange here.)

Whether Isakson asked DeVos to clarify her position on IDEA is not clear. However, it is clear that DeVos is trying to smooth over a rough moment in her hearing.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

 

January 24, 2017

The Honorable Johnny Isakson United States Senate 131 Russell Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Isakson,

Thank you for the opportunity to more fully explain my position on the importance of protecting the rights of students with disabilities and ensuring that they receive the quality education they need and deserve. I am committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard won rights of students with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, commonly called IDEA, protects the rights of students with disabilities to gain access to a high-quality education. I would like to address three specific aspects of IDEA: (1) the federal role in implementing IDEA, (2) the importance of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and (3) my passion for expanding educational options for parents who have a child with a disability.

Federal Role in Implementing IDEA

I believe that all students, including individuals with disabilities, deserve an equal opportunity to lead full, productive and successful lives. To that end, I am committed to supporting the remarkable parents and educators who make this vision a reality for students with disabilities in states and communities across our great nation. IDEA requires a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment for all students with disabilities.

At the federal level, we need to guide and monitor compliance while supporting states with the tools they need to help parents, schools, districts and other stakeholders succeed. For example, we must fund research and disseminate information about evidence based practices that work best for students with disabilities.

Individualized Educational Program (IEP)

At the federal level, we must encourage states to work with parents, schools and districts to create more effective IEPs that are useful for increasing learning gains for students with disabilities. IEPs must include measurable annual goals for monitoring progress and clear information for parents about student progress toward high but achievable expectations. The IEP should be viewed as a practical blueprint for action. Students with disabilities are accomplishing great things in states and districts that recognize their uniqueness. We can shine a light on these successes so that others know what is possible. If confirmed as Secretary, I will make it a priority to highlight what works best for students with disabilities.

Expanding Educational Options for Parents

One additional strategy I will pursue is to look for ways to increase access by students with disabilities to a broader range of educational options. I have seen exciting changes in students with disabilities when they attend schools that meet their needs. My friends, Sam Myers and his mother Tera, attended my confirmation hearing last week. Sam, who has Down’s Syndrome, was a Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship recipient. The program exemplifies how states can– and do– implement the federal law and use their flexibility to ensure parents can choose the learning environment in which their children with disabilities will achieve and thrive.

I am eager to bring a sense of urgency around all of these issues: implementation and enforcement of IDEA at the federal, state, and local levels; improving the quality of IEPs; and expanding the conversation about school choice opportunities for parents of students with disabilities.

To me, IDEA is a wonderful example of what happens when parents are regarded as full partners in their child’s educational decision-making.

Sincerely,

Betsy DeVos

Here’s the major issue I have with DeVos’ letter:

IDEA, with its “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE), applies to students enrolled in public schools. DeVos’ example of the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship (Ohio) as an example of how states “implement the federal law” is sketchy at best and intentionally misleading at worst.

Can I use the JPSN Scholarship Program to supplement my child’s public education? No. The scholarship is an educational choice program. If a student is approved for the scholarship, the public district is no longer responsible for providing a free and appropriate education (FAPE). The student must use the scholarship to obtain their education AND supportive services.
How should the district of residence address the scholarship on the child’s IEP if the child will be applying for the scholarship? The district of residence must always write the IEP as if the district of residence would be implementing the IEP. There should be no mention of the JPSN scholarship program on the child’s IEP.
If the services rendered exceed the maximum amount per year for the JPSN scholarship, who is responsible for the costs of these services? If the cost exceeds the maximum amount allowed per year based on the child’s special education category, the parent would be responsible for covering the additional cost.
What services is my public school district responsible for providing? By accepting the scholarship, you have relinquished your right to FAPE. Your district must renew your child’s IEP annually and conduct required evaluations, but the district is not required to provide any services to your child.

So, the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship provides funds for parents to contract with a provider to have conditions of the IEP met as the student attends private school. The public school district still assumes the responsibility (and cost) of completing the IEP. Furthermore, if the services exceed the scholarship money (or if the provider does not provide the services noted on the IEP), then the parent becomes responsible for providing services for a student who attends private school.

In other words, the private school is completely absolved of meeting the requirements of the IEP.

DeVos’ letter to Isakson settles no issues for me, a seasoned public school teacher who has had scores of IEPs cross my least-restrictive-environment, classroom desk.

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Longer version originally posted 01-29-17 at deutsch29.wordpress.com.

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Released July 2016– Book Three:

CONVERSATIONS