Dear Ms. DeVos,
I know that you and your family care about children. I live and work in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the contributions of the DeVos family are evident throughout our community. That is why I’m reaching out to you today, one mother to another.
As a parent of a child with Down syndrome and special education advocate, it was difficult to hear you respond to Senator Kain’s questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) with seemingly little understanding of the law that protects my son’s right to an education. Ms. DeVos, I’d like to explain, from my perspective, why so many of us have expressed concern over your response to the Senator’s questions regarding the IDEA. I hope this can be the start of a larger discussion about the benefits and protections for children that the Department of Education oversees through its implementation and enforcement of the IDEA.
The IDEA is the landmark civil rights law that protects the right of America’s children with disabilities to receive an adequate education. Note that I did not write “an exceptional education” as most parents would assume is the right of every child in our public school system. The Endrew F. case before the current Supreme Court is worth a read to see what kind of low bar we are actually talking about protecting. One day, we hope to have an education system that sets the same expectations for all students and provides the necessary supports to achieve that. The IDEA is the foundation for that future and is the only thing that stands between our children and an education with trivial to no benefit.
The law was first enacted as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, and ensures access to a free appropriate public education for all disabled children. FAPE, as it is known, was not always the law of the land. Prior to 1975, it is estimated that nearly 1 million children with disabilities were excluded from school (Wright & Wright, 2014). In 1970, US schools educated only one in five students with disabilities and many states had laws that strictly excluded children with disabilities from school (US Department of Education, 2010). Because of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which later became the IDEA, schools have had to open their doors to students with disabilities and adhere to the concepts of FAPE, Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), high expectations and inclusion in the general education environment, to the maximum extent appropriate to receive federal funding through the IDEA.
Before this landmark legislation, there was no assumption that students with disabilities would even be allowed in the school building. I can’t imagine being told that my beautiful, funny, compassionate and smart son is not welcome in his neighborhood school. Can you imagine someone telling you that? Today, not only has access been dramatically improved, but so have outcomes. The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA states,
“Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible, in order to meet developmental goals and, to the maximum extent possible, the challenging expectations that have been established for all children and be prepared to lead productive and independent adult lives, to the maximum extent possible (20USC §1400(c)(5)(A)(i) and (ii)).”
To further cite the department you now lead,
“…significant national progress has been made in ensuring equal access to education for all children with disabilities. During the 2007-08 school year, IDEA mandated programs and services were provided to more than 6 million children and youths with disabilities and more than 320,000 infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families” (US Department of Education, 2010).
In a study of nearly 3,000 preschoolers receiving early intervention through IDEA mandated programs, results indicated that there was an approximate reduction of 16 percent per year in the number of children receiving special education and related services over a two year period because they no longer required special education (US Department of Education, 2010). The IDEA has proven that early intervention works to benefit our most academically vulnerable children and help reduce the economic impact of educating those students throughout their educational career. It is also worth noting that, beyond school, the positive economic impact of a self-sufficient, independent adult in the community far outweighs the cost in the early years to provide special education and related services.
The IDEA also ensures that children with disabilities will be educated in their least restrictive environment (LRE). Before the protections of IDEA came into being, even when students with disabilities were allowed into the school, they were largely educated in segregated settings. This resulted in low expectations and poor outcomes for students with disabilities. There is an ever-growing mountain of research that demonstrates that educating students in the general education environment, with appropriate aids and services, is the most effective location for the majority of students with disabilities. The research shows that including students, to the maximum extent appropriate, in general education classrooms has several benefits – and not just for those with disabilities:
- Fewer absences from school
- Fewer referrals for disruptive behavior
- Better outcomes after high school in the areas of employment and independent living (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, & Levine, 2006)
- For students with high incidence disabilities, a larger percentage make gains in academics in the general education environment than in segregated, self-contained classrooms(Waldron, Cole, & Majd, 2001)
- The presence of students with disabilities in a general education classroom resulted in better outcomes in reading and math for nondisabled students compared to their nondisabled peers in fully segregated environments (Waldron, Cole, & Majd, 2001)
Additionally, the protections of the IDEA extend to charter schools. I understand that you are a strong advocate for school choice and the charter school movement. I wonder how, without the protections of the IDEA, we can ensure equal access to students with disabilities? With the seemingly sole focus of administrators to get and keep student test scores high, it seems there would be a clear disincentive to welcome and educate students with disabilities – particularly those with intellectual disabilities – if the IDEA is not enforced in all schools receiving federal funding. I worry about a post-IDEA, charter school world where my son would be left to linger in a public school that receives little funding due to its low enrollment because all others who could, fled to schools where they were welcomed and my son was denied access because of his disability. The end result would surely be a return to a fully segregated school system for those with disabilities. To be clear, families like mine still must fight battles in our schools, even with the protections of the IDEA. However, without the strict enforcement of the IDEA, we would be setting our kids with disabilities back 40 years.
The IDEA doesn’t address all the barriers to a quality education for our children and it can be difficult to navigate, but it protects the most basic rights of our children to an education and the U.S. Secretary of Education should understand and strongly enforce it. I urge you to reconsider your comments made at your confirmation hearing. Please reach out to the large and welcoming disability community and engage us in this conversation. We want you to be successful, but many of us fear that your lack of experience in the world of special education paired with your advocacy for school of choice, vouchers and charter schools will result in our children being left behind again. It doesn’t have to be that way. Please work with us to ensure that the enforcement of the IDEA remains consistent and strong so that our children may continue to make the academic and social gains that are promised to every child in this country.
US Department of Education. (2010). Thirty-five Years of Progress in Educating Children With Disabilities Through IDEA. Alexandria, VA: ED Pubs, Education Publications Center.
Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., & Levine, P. (2006). The Academic Achievement and Functional Performance of Youth with Disbilities: A Report from The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS@). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
Waldron, N., Cole, C., & Majd, M. (2001). The academic progress of students across inclusive and traditional settings: A two year Indiana inclusion study. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Institute on Disability & Community.
Wright, P. W., & Wright, P. D. (2014). Special Education Law, 2nd Edition. Harbor House Law Press.