The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is the nation’s federal special education law, which provides funding, technical assistance and monitoring to ensure students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education. With the recent passage of COVID-19 stimulus package, the U.S. Congress provided Secretary of Education Betsy Devos with the right to provide waivers to states for the IDEA implementation.
As a researcher in the area of education policy, this is extremely concerning. If Secretary Devos’ past behavior has any predictive value for her future decisions related to equitable educational policies, then families of children with disabilities across the country should also be highly concerned.
During Devos’ Senate confirmation hearings three years ago, she struggled to respond to basic questions posed by Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia about special education. She was asked whether schools that receive tax dollars should be required to meet IDEA requirements in which she replied, “I think that is a matter that’s best left for states.” Under federal law, the department of education is responsible for monitoring IDEA compliance.
Texas serves as a perfect example for why federal oversight is critical. Recently, the Department of Education found that Texas created a policy that delayed or denied special education to eligible students and was also in violation of a federal statute prohibiting states from reducing funding for students with disabilities from year to year.
Additionally, just last year, a federal judge ruled that the Department of Education’s delay of a rule that required states to address racial disproportionality in special education was illegal. The Obama-era rule required districts to address policies and practices that lead to “significant disproportionality” in special education for students of color.
The Department of Education also planned to eliminate 29 programs and slash $17.6 million dollars of funding for Special Olympics within the 2020 budget. Congressman Mark Pocan asked if she knew how many students would be affected, Devos replied, “I don’t know the number of kids.” The budget also included millions of dollars in cuts to the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults, the American Printing House for the Blind, and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
The country is now facing extreme challenges dealing with COVID-19 and states and districts will need flexibility and support in providing education to students with disabilities, but leadership and creditability to make such decisions is lacking.
Congress needs to reconsider providing the Secretary Devos with the power to grant waivers for IDEA implementation. Families need to join in solidarity with disability advocates and educators to demand special education remain intact and that stimulus money be directed toward preventing a disruption of services.
The Department of Education needs to ensure districts and schools have the resources available to provide educational and other related services to students with disabilities. This includes additional funding for technology, new digital platforms, and low-tech options that might include activities and packets coupled with family-resource guides that can support instruction and services in the home.
The Department of Education should also begin planning to support the delivery of compensatory services for students with disabilities who are now unable to receive special education due to school closures. The population of students with disabilities that will need to make up missed services at the public’s expense will be too burdensome for many rural and urban districts, particularly those in low-income communities.
IDEA was put in place to ensure that students with disabilities have access to a “Free and Appropriate Education.” As school leaders and teachers scramble to consider innovative ways to provide remote instruction to students with disabilities, ensuring that provisions are in place to prioritize protections for these vulnerable populations are more important than ever.
Rather than allowing for Devos to be the gatekeeper of how states allocate resources for students with disabilities during this time of crisis, the federal government must help students with disabilities and their families at a critical moment. Our students with disabilities deserve their right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education and must be protected from a harmful disruptive of services.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor and the director of the Texas Principal Leadership Academy at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed in The Hill.