January 17, 2017

Under Questioning from Senator Hassan, Betsy DeVos Refuses to Commit to Enforcing the Law to Protect Students with Disabilities

Under Questioning from Senator Hassan, Betsy DeVos Refuses to Commit to Enforcing the Law to Protect Students with Disabilities

Senator Hassan to DeVos: "It's not about sensitivity - although that helps - it's about being willing to enforce the law."

DeVos Also Admits She Was Confused About Whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA) Is A Federal Law

WASHINGTON -- Today, during the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee confirmation hearing for President-elect Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, Senator Maggie Hassan questioned Mrs. DeVos on her commitment to protecting students who experience disabilities.

After describing how her son Ben, who experiences severe disabilities, was able to get a quality education at his local public school because of the countless advocates who fought to ensure that public schools would have adequate resources and protections for children like Ben, Senator Hassan pushed Mrs. DeVos on whether she would enforce the law in regards to students who experience disabilities.

The Senator explained that when students who experience disabilities receive a publicly-funded voucher to attend a private school, these students often do not receive adequate resources and may need to sign over their legal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Senator Hassan pressed Mrs. DeVos on whether or not she would enforce the IDEA and if she believes that families should have a recourse in the courts if their child's education does not adequately meet his or her needs.

In response to Mrs. DeVos's statement that if she is confirmed she will be very "sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that," Senator Hassan responded, "With all due respect, it's not about sensitivity - although that helps. It's about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education - high quality public education."

Not only did Mrs. DeVos refuse to commit to enforcing the law to protect students with disabilities, but she also admitted that she was confused about whether the IDEA is a federal law.

Read the full transcript below and click here for video:

Sen. Hassan: Thank you, Mr. Chair and ranking member Murray. I certainly look forward to working on this committee with all of you and I appreciate the opportunity to participate. And Mrs. Devos, it is nice to see you again. Thank you for being here today, and your family as well. And I think all of us here share a commitment to public education and understand the essential nature to our democracy. I would echo my colleagues' call for another round at least, of questioning, because I think our job here is not just to talk about ideas but actually to drill down how things actually work in practice. And so, I want to talk about one of those situations that we began to touch on in my office when we met. And it echoes a little bit of what Senator Collins was just talking about in terms of a full commitment to our students with disabilities and what Senator Cassidy was talking about in terms of access to quality education for children with dyslexia.

My son, Ben, experiences very severe physical disabilities - he has cerebral palsy. He can't speak, he can't use his fingers for a keyboard, he doesn't walk, but he is smart and the best kid on Earth, if I do say so myself. He got a quality public education at our local school. He is a graduate of Exeter Area High School in Exeter, New Hampshire. And the reason he got there was because countless advocates and champions before the Hassan family worked so hard to make sure that he had the right to that education. And I am concerned that when students who experience disabilities receive a publicly funded voucher to attend a private school, they often don't receive adequate resources and in some cases have to sign over their legal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. So, do you think that families should have a recourse in the courts if their child's education does not adequately meet his or her needs - whether it's at a school where they get a voucher or in a more traditional public school?

Mrs. DeVos: Thank you Senator for that question and again I appreciated our meeting earlier last week. Let me begin by saying I appreciate and am thankful that you've had the opportunity with your son Ben, to find the right setting for him and I would advocate for all parents to be able to have that opportunity to choose the right school --

Sen. Hassan: I actually had the opportunity to send him to the same public school that my daughter went to because law required that that school provide him resources that were never provided before that law was passed - because they're hard. And so the question is, will you enforce the law with regard to kids with disabilities if a voucher program did allow them to go someplace else? And the school said 'It's just too expensive, we don't want to do it?'

Mrs. Devos: I think that there are great examples of programs that are already underway in states. Ohio has a great program and in fact, Sam and his mom are here today, beneficiary of the John Peterson Special needs scholarship program.

Sen. Hassan: I understand that. And because my time is limited, excuse me for interrupting, but what I am asking you is, there is at least one voucher program in Florida, the McKay Voucher Program, which makes students sign away their rights before they can get that voucher. I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I think it will mean that students with disabilities cannot use a voucher system that a department under your leadership might start. So I want to know whether you will enforce and whether you will make sure that children with disabilities do not have to sign away their legal rights in order to get a voucher should a voucher program be developed.

Mrs. Devos: Well I'd love to comment to the McKay Scholarship program in Florida where I believe today 31,000 students are taking advantage of it, and 93% of the parents that are utilizing that voucher are very very pleased with - as opposed to thirty-some percent of parents happy with the assigned school.

Sen. Hassan: And I'm sorry but that is not the question I asked. So for right now, I'm going to move on to one final question. I really do wish we had a second round because there is a lot here that is critical to our children especially with disabilities. And with all due respect, Mrs. DeVos has not answered my question, but the other question I had, again and because we do not have a second round, I am trying to follow up on an answer you gave earlier to some of my colleagues. I understand there is a foundation - the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation - which I take it is a foundation named for your parents, is that correct?

Mrs. DeVos: My mother's foundation.

Sen. Hassan: It's your mother's foundation and you sit on the board?

Mrs. DeVos: I do not.

Sen. Hassan: You do not.

Mrs. DeVos: No.

Sen. Hassan: Okay, so when it made the $5 million donation to Focus on the Family, you didn't know anything about it.

Mrs. Devos: My mother makes the decisions for her foundation.

Sen. Hassan: Thank you.

[...]

Sen. Hassan: Thank you, Senator Murray. Just two quick things Mrs. DeVos. I just wanted to clarify the issue about whether you were on the board of your mother's foundation. I have 990s up through 2013 where you're listed as the Vice President and a board member, so was that just a mistake on your part?

Mrs. DeVos: That was a clerical error - I can assure you. I have never made decisions on my mother's behalf on her foundation board.

Sen. Hassan: So the listing that you were the Vice President of the Board is incorrect?

Mrs. DeVos: That is incorrect.

Sen. Hassan: Okay, thank you. The other thing I just wanted to circle back to, I want to go back to the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act - that is a federal civil rights law - so do you stand by your statement a few minutes ago that it should be up to the states whether to follow it?

Mrs. DeVos: Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.

Sen. Hassan: So were you unware when I just asked about the IDEA that it is a federal law?

Mrs. DeVos: I may have confused it.

Sen. Hassan: It guarantees absolutely basic protections to students with disabilities to ensure that they are afforded a high-quality education with their peers. One of the reasons that it is difficult to have this hearing and feel that we fully understand your perspective is because we do know that children with disabilities in a least some of the voucher programs that you have supported have gone with a voucher to a school, because of their disability had to leave the school. The school keeps the money - and they go back to public schools that now have even less resources to deal with them. And many of us see this as the potential for turning our public schools into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities or other kinds of particular issues - or the kids whose parents can't afford to make up the difference between the voucher and the cost of private school tuition. So I just would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated with the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act. And I do have to say, I'm concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it and that you seem to support voucher schools that have not honored - you know have made students sign away their rights to make sure that the law is enforced. That's very troubling to me.

Mrs. DeVos: Senator, I assure you that if confirmed I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.

Sen. Hassan: And with all due respect, it's not about sensitivity - although that helps. It's about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education - high quality public education - and the reality is that the way the voucher systems that you have supported work don't always come out that way. And that's why it's something we need to continue to explore. Thank you.

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