By Meg Flanagan
Social media, and many in the education world, exploded over the nomination and confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos last week.
New administration, new Secretary of Education, right? So what’s the big deal?
Who is Betsy DeVos?
DeVos is a longtime Republican from Michigan. She previously chaired that state’s Republican Party. DeVos and her family, have contributed potentially $200 million to the GOP over an undisclosed period of time. DeVos is married to Richard DeVos, Jr., the son of Richard DeVos who created the Amway direct sales company.
In Michigan, DeVos has been an advocate for the voucher system, charter schools, and school choice. According to NPR, DeVos has chaired or been on the board of Great Lakes Education Project, Excel in Ed, and the American Federation for Children. All of these non-profits promote private school vouchers, school choice, and/or charter or magnet schools.
What’s a school voucher?
School choice is a controversial program in which students receive money to attend a private, secular or religious, school instead of their local public school. Not every student qualifies for vouchers. Students and families must meet certain standards, such as income, school performance or students in military families.
When a student uses a voucher system to attend a private school, the tuition is covered through a state-funded scholarship. Advocates for this system say that it creates competition among schools to either improve or lose students and funding. Opponents say that providing state funding to religious schools guts the public school system and dismantles the separation of church and state.
Private schools do not have to meet state or national standards of education. They also have more leeway with curriculum materials, teacher salaries and which students attend their schools. Private schools also do not have to comply with special education laws, unless they are a specialized school for students with special education needs.
What’s a charter/magnet school?
A charter school is a school opened by members of the community through a charter. The school is allowed to operate for a set period of time and is funded by the state or local school district. If the school fails to meet student academic growth goals, they will lose their charter and public funding. Literally, anyone and any group can open a charter school.
A magnet school is similar to a charter school but usually focus on a specific academic area, like art or science. These schools also receive public funding. The school is designed to bring students together outside of their traditionally zoned school districts. Often there is an admission test or lottery in order to gain admission.
Charter and magnet schools are also controversial. Advocates claim that these schools allow greater freedom of choice and a higher quality of education than traditional public schools. Opponents argue that charter and magnet schools reduce funding for public schools, which decreases the effectiveness of the institutions. They also highlight that charter schools can be operated by for-profit organizations and do not need to meet state or local education standards.
Great. But what does this mean for my military family?
Here’s the possible impact on military kids with disabilities:
This is the big one: IDEA. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act protects the rights of students with special education needs in the public school setting. It guarantees that students with Individual Education Plans (IEP) and 504 Plans (guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act) receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting.
Students with a disability of any kind can attend their local public school and progress academically at their level in that environment. It sets out the rights of parents with students in the special education system. It means that no one can be denied an education based on pre-existing conditions– whether they are intellectual, physical, social, or psychological.
During her hearing, DeVos had serious issues with IDEA and it’s implementation in schools nationwide. When questioned by Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), DeVos asserted that this was best left up to the states.
“Should all K-12 schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act?” asked Kaine.
“I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states.” replied Devos.
“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’re public, public charter, or private?” Kaine pressed.
Senator Maggie Hassan (D- New Hampshire) continued to question DeVos about IDEA and highlighted her lack of knowledge on this issue.
“So were you unaware, when I just asked you about the IDEA, that it was a federal law?” Hassan questioned.
“I may have confused it,” said DeVos. However, she did say that “federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.”
This should be concerning if your child receives special education services. For a potential Secretary of Education to not be well versed in federal education law means that laws protecting services for our children could be removed or unenforced going forward. It could give states leeway to underfund special education services or fail to provide an appropriate education.
Here’s the possible impact on military kids in public schools:
Many military children attend public schools, either in their local district or through DoDEA schools.
During her hearing, DeVos was non-committal about her stance on routing public school money to private schools or charter schools.
“Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?” asked Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington).
“Senator, thanks for that question. I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students.” DeVos replied. “And we acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. And I’m hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”
While there are issues with many public schools in this country, much of that is connected to funding relative to need. Schools in urban areas are often crowded, with a higher percentage of students learning English and living in poverty. They also often have poorly maintained facilities and outdated teaching materials.
Which would make private school vouchers/charter schools seem like a great choice. Except that the more money funneled toward those options, the less there is for traditional public schools. This increases the funding deficit, leading to bigger problems that can’t be solved due to lack of money.
There is also way less regulation of charter schools, allowing schools to skirt education standards or have lowered proficiency standards– which would also affect any military kids attending those schools. There is also some concern over charter schools and special education.
Here are some possible conflicts of interest:
DeVos has been a proponent of school choice, school choice vouchers and allowing vouchers to be used at religious schools. She has also supported gay conversion therapy in the past.
Public schools, as well as charter and magnet schools, are secular and must meet state and/or national education standards.
There have also been questions about whether her assets include financial stakes in education-related companies. Having these connections could potentially create profit for her by directing policy and federal contracts or curriculum recommendations toward these groups.
And here’s the bottom line for milfams:
Military families have long experienced the varying degrees of education across this country and within DoDEA. This has led many of us to choose private schools, charter schools, or homeschooling as the educational options for our children.
However, DeVos’s answers, especially to questions about IDEA, holding schools which receive federal funding accountable for federal education standards and her position on privatizing public education, require closer scrutiny.
Continued and expanded support for public charters and private school vouchers could divert more money from public schools. With uncertain moving schedules, military families do not always meet application deadlines for admission to charter schools or to receive vouchers. This could mean that families may pay out of pocket for private schools or will send their children to underfunded public schools.
DeVos’s track record of support for unregulated charter school growth should also get a closer look. Charter schools already do not need to meet traditional education standards; some are operated by for-profit groups. With fewer regulations, teachers are held to different standards and results on assessments are even more important than in public schools. There are also differences with special education services provided, and the level of qualifications for special education teachers at those schools. This means that military families–who have no choice in where they move–mayhave a higher likelihood of attending sub-par schools.
For military families with students with special education looking to private school vouchers or charter schools, it should be troubling that DeVos was unable to fully commit to enforcing IDEA in all schools receiving federal funding. This could exclude your child from those programs or place your child into an inadequate program. The diversion of public school funds to private or charter schools could result in less funding for special education programs, decreasing services available or quality of materials available.
Additionally, her lack of knowledge about IDEA and that it is equally enforceable in all 50 states is troubling. DeVos repeatedly stated that enforcement of IDEA should be a matter for the states, despite it being a federal law. By leaving this matter “up to the states,” it opens the door to spotty special education services and programs. By extension, the guarantee of a free, appropriate education for all students, in special education and in general education, could be slowly eroded. This means that military children with disabilities would be at the mercy of the standards and enforcement of each state they move to and would not enjoy the same federal protections that they do now– regardless of the state they live in.
Meg Flanagan is a military spouse and education advocate who has worked in private, public, and homeschool settings. She has no stake or preference for any education setting but desires to create a system that holds all students to a high standard of learning that will make the US competitive on the world stage. She holds an M.Ed in special education, with a focus on learning disabilities, autism, and autism spectrum disorders. She is currently certified in two states and by the DoDEA.