If Betsy DeVos on Special Education Bothers You, You Should Be Watching Jeff Sessions, Too

Jan 27, 2017 12:00:00 AM


The education world is filled with chatter for and against Betsy DeVos. Some of the loudest concerns have been over her lack of understanding of federal law protecting students in special education. Even those who agree with her position—that special-needs families participating in state voucher programs should be required to waive their rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—say  she flubbed it when asked to explain. But in a recent letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), it looks like she’s trying to  step up her game. Meanwhile, there’s a deafening silence about an even more powerful nominee, Attorney General pick Jeff Sessions, and his thoughts on special education law. Sure, right after he was nominated  advocates voiced concerns that he would not enforce key civil rights provisions in IDEA. Those provisions ensure students whose disabilities affect their behavior are not subject to inappropriate discipline. But we haven’t heard much about it since November, nor have many people been talking about what has happened to IDEA in recent years. Advocates’ initial concerns arose from a  2000 speech on the Senate floor where Sessions voiced constituent concerns that those provisions, in practice, meant special education students were not held accountable for dangerous behavior. Since the year 2000, the federal law has changed. Sessions voted for the changes when IDEA was reauthorized in 2004. One of those changes has made getting an education more difficult for some students with disabilities. Before 2004, the burden fell on schools to prove that a student’s disability had no connection to behavior before issuing disciplinary consequences for it.

Will Sessions Enforce the Laws that Support Diverse Learners?

Today, the burden falls on parents to show that the behavior is linked to a child’s disability. For families without money and access to legal expertise, this can be hard to prove. Way back in 2005, I met a family dealing with  just this issue. Their 20-year-old son was still trying to earn a diploma after repeated suspensions and even an expulsion. I’d like to know what Jeff Sessions would say to a family whose son is struggling with both learning and emotional problems, not getting the help he needs and acting out. Yes, we have to protect other students from harm. And we also have to meet the law’s obligation to provide every child a “free and appropriate public education,” no matter what issues they bring to the classroom. That’s a tough job. I’m with the Milwaukee special educator who wants Sessions to sit in an actual classroom and see what is happening. As  she told Forbes:
These kids are kids, and they’re in school to learn. We [teachers] need to help them do that, and it’s his job to enforce the law to see that that is done.
That goes for DeVos, too. Here’s what I want to know: Will both of them go after Texas in the wake of  news reports that the state routinely denied children special education services? In December, the U.S. Department of Education held  listening sessions across the state to allow families and the public to share their stories of how well or poorly they saw special education services working in their schools. The Department also sent a  letter to the state education agency, which responded with denials. Yet Texas special advocates have been  complaining for years that students aren’t receiving services they need. Will Trump’s new education secretary—and attorney general—continue to ask questions and hold Texas education officials accountable? Will they send a message to other states that doing right for kids is more important than “looking bad” or pinching pennies? That’s the kind of test Sessions and DeVos need to pass to tell us they understand special education law.

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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