It has been a few weeks since Betsy DeVos has really screwed up anything, so we were definitely due. This fall, “back-to-school” meant something very different to our federal government than it did in years past. Our Department of Education has decided to make a public statement that our children with special needs aren’t valued. DeVos has continued to scorch the educational earth in the obtuse manner that is her signature brand.
I know it sounds like hyperbole. I honestly wish I were exaggerating. But our voucher-loving, bear-fearing ignoramus of a Secretary of Education has decided to rescind 72 “Dear Colleague letters” (“DCL”) relating to special education. Before the whispering about “governmental efficiency” even begins, let’s talk about what the rescission actually means. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) federally mandates that children with disabilities must receive a “free, appropriate public education” (often referred to as “FAPE”), in the “least restrictive environment.” This may seem like administrative jargon for those unfamiliar with special education, but parents of students with special needs know their children’s rights to receive a proper education cannot be exaggerated; millions of families rely on special education and related services to provide our children the safe and productive education all children deserve.
Many times, what constitutes an “appropriate public education,” or the “least restrictive environment,” isn’t entirely clear to a school district or to families. Must students be permitted to bring service dogs to class? What does it mean for a child to be “significantly impacted” by a disability? What factors must a district consider when determining if a disabled student should be removed from his or her local school and placed in a specialized school? How must federal funds be spent serving disabled students? These questions and others like them often have complex answers that are the product of long-term relationships and even litigation between special needs families and school districts. The guidance delivered to districts via DCLs is a critical component to serving our disabled children appropriately, promptly, and efficiently. As an added bonus, specific clarification of IDEA’s mandates regularly eliminates costly and stressful conflict between families and school districts.
LawNewz spoke today with special education attorney Jerry Tanenbaum, who explained, “these guidance letters have proved over time to be immensely practical in resolving disputes without resorting to litigation.” DeVos’ decision to eliminate this critical guidance to school districts is a clear message: our school districts are free to interpret IDEA however they like, whether those interpretations meet the needs of disabled students or not. Mr. Tanenbaum elaborated on the importance of the DCLs, many of which have been in circulation for decades:
Most families with children with special needs cannot afford attorneys, and they rely on information they can research themselves on the internet to verify or challenge what might be told to them by their school districts. Much of the information out there is either wrong or confusing – but one thing families could count on was guidance letters from the Department of Education, which for the most part are written in language lay people can understand, and are often on topics that fall into gray areas in the law that even lawyers were unclear about.
DeVos’ elimination of the DCLs unravels decades of progress made by the special education community and shrouds IDEA in a kind of confusion that is certain to take valuable tools out of the hands of students who need them most. The worst part about the DOE’s most recent misstep is that it isn’t a move to embrace some political or ideological point of view; it is simply a misguided and deeply uninformed decision to make school districts less accountable at the expense of the children who significantly rely on already-underfunded government support.
The Trump administration, led by an education secretary who was publicly revealed to be utterly clueless about what IDEA even is, continues to sing its one-note song: regulations are bad simply because they exist, no matter what they say. Betsy DeVos may believe it’s better to say less about special education, but her message couldn’t be clearer; special education students and their families are not a group to be valued, nurtured, or served. Rather, they are an unwanted drain on this federal government, to be marginalized, abandoned, and ignored in the name of deregulation.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.