The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, arguably the most controversial confirmation process in a series of contentious confirmations, is not likely to be forgotten by anyone any time soon. DeVos was barely confirmed by the senate on Feb. 7 after Vice President Pence cast a tie-breaking ballot, following a vote split almost entirely down party lines, save for the Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — both of whom had the opportunity to block DeVos’ vote on the Senate floor and did not do so. Her appointment is a terror to many parents, but
DeVos' confirmation is especially scary for special-needs parents. A billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, DeVos was the subject of a number of protests, a flood of phone calls to the Senate, and wide-spread ridicule regarding her lack of experience, poor understanding of federal education law, large donations to the Senators who helped confirm her, and thoughts on permitting guns in schools for protection from grizzly bears.
Speaking personally, there have been a number of issues on which it has not surprised me in the slightest that the Republican-majority senate has tied itself in knots to bend to the will of our 45 president. However, this confirmation seemed to draw so much anger from teachers and parents, especially parents of children with disabilities, across party lines, that I expected to see Republican senators respond to that pressure. The calls regarding the DeVos confirmation overwhelmed the senators’ offices — so much so that many people calling found the phones turned off or voicemails full. I thought that I would finally see history lessons in action, our representatives bending to the unequivocal will of the people.
Now I am not an expert on grizzly bears, billionaire contributions to senators, or
plagiarism rules in Senate questionnaires, but everything I understand about each of these issues with relation to DeVos gives me extreme pause if only by the shear number of concerns raised. Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images
I am, however, the mother of a child with disabilities who already struggles to fully access her right to a free and appropriate public education. And I can tell you that everything I know about the difficulties families like mine face in getting school districts to adequately meet the educational requirements of children who have special needs tells me that the DeVos appointment is a direct threat to my child’s educational future.
In many ways, I feel like we're on the edge of moving backwards to a time where children like my daughter were unable to access an appropriate education. I am not the only one. Adults with disabilities are speaking out: Allison Cardwell, an adult with cerebral palsy whose
open letter to DeVos went viral recently, put it, ““providing children with a fair chance to learn is the first step in ending a cycle of dependence on public assistance. My education is the only reason I no longer rely on government benefits.” And parents of young children who are afraid of very real impact even one year of policy changes regarding their child’s education could have on their growth and development are speaking up.
Here's how they feel:
Ali Cummins Courtesy of the individual featured Cummins is 33 years old and from Illinois. My daughter has spent most of her life in physical and occupational therapy; she tells me that the therapy will help her get strong enough to save the world one day. She wants to be a superhero. When Ceci was born, she was diagnosed with Hypotonia — low muscle tone. In essence, her daily life is a constant and sometimes exhausting fight against gravity. Milestones like crawling and walking were delayed and hard earned. Simple tasks like holding a pencil or drawing a straight line challenge her. Even so, Ceci faces each challenge with the determination of a superhero and often succeeds. Like most moms, I have worried about her future, but I have never worried about her education until DeVos was appointed Secretary of Education. DeVos' lack of knowledge in regards to the IDEA only further proves how little the current administration values people with disabilities. I fear that we are going back to a not-so-distant time when children with special needs were thrown into mainstream classes with no support. Or worse, kept home. Or even worse than that, institutionalized. Her appointment has really been a slap in the face to the parents like me who work to make sure that our children not only have the most appropriate accommodations for them to flourish and grow, but that they are treated fairly as human beings as well. DeVos supporters tell me this will be a 'good change,' that education has long needed an overhaul, that I will finally have a choice in my child's education. But the truth of the matter is that my choice will ultimately be between the worse of two evils. A poorly funded and decaying public school system which, after having funds funneled away to charter schools, will no longer have the financial means and resources to meet my child's needs. Or a private or charter school setting that will not be required to provide my child with the services and accommodations she needs to learn and succeed. Those are the unsettling choices parents everywhere are faced with. What will happen to our children? Sadly, I fear much of the beauty and goodness these children would bring to our world will be lost. What will happen to Ceci? Remember, she wants to save the world, she just needs someone to give her a fighting chance. Katie Banks Courtesy of the individual featured Banks is 36 years old and lives in Washington. I am a stay-at-home mother/caregiver and have six children, including 5-year-old twins in Pre-K. We are a typical middle-class, single-income military family, who scrapes by living paycheck to paycheck, often 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' to make ends meet. My 5-year-old son Wyatt has an incredibly rare genetic mutation, which causes intractable epilepsy, and he also has Autism. He has a significant developmental delay which leaves him at about 18 months cognitively and is also non-verbal. This is his second year of public preschool, where he is in a self-contained special education classroom. As Wyatt's mom, I worry constantly about his future. With Betsy DeVos being appointed Education Secretary, that fear has only skyrocketed. It is obvious that she is grossly unqualified for such an important position. Her appointment has really been a slap in the face to the parents like me who work to make sure that our children not only have the most appropriate accommodations for them to flourish and grow, but that they are treated fairly as human beings as well. It already feels like an uphill battle sometimes, so adding a woman into the equation who appears to have no real knowledge of the struggles our families face, and no desire to want to make changes for the better leaves me with a pit in my stomach that I just can't shake. She seems to have her own agenda that has very little to do with actually helping ALL children become the best versions of themselves. She has absolutely no idea what struggles public schools face, and she couldn't be bothered with reading up on some of the most important aspects of public education before her hearing, which made her look ignorant and unqualified. Would you want a pilot with no actual flying time to fly your plane? How about a cab driver with no driving experience or an accountant who can't do simple math. It is no different, except to add insult to injury, she seems so incredibly complacent about the things that are of utmost importance to us. Nora Lyons Sauter Courtesy of the individual featured Sauter is 39 years old and lives in Massachusetts. My 6-year-old son Blake is on an Individual Education Plan (IEP), in an [special education] class, and learning communication with switches. Every service, piece of equipment, and therapy is a struggle to get paid for. Seeing Betsy DeVos nominated, and narrowly confirmed, as education secretary made my blood run cold. She very proudly has never been, or had a child in public schools. It took my breath away when Sen. Maggie Hassen — herself a special-needs parent — asked DeVos about the IDEA and DeVos had no idea what it was. She didn't know that it's the federal law guaranteeing my son an education. She said it should be 'left to the states.' Massachusetts has a great education, and special-education system but this shouldn't be left to the states. Blake is flourishing in his school. He joins typical students for music and gym class. He has a wonderful teacher, dedicated therapists, and caring para professionals. They all contribute to his successes. Every special needs child deserves this. Someone like DeVos, who has no experience in a public school, and I would venture little to no experience with special education, might see the extra costs for special education as something disposable. Too many people have fought to get children into public schools for one ignorant person to change that. We’re not poor, but we don’t have resources like that. His teachers, aides, and his school principals have pushed for inclusion, the least restrictive environment, and even when I’ve been nervous, they’ve been right. They want him to succeed. Betsy DeVos does not. Betsy DeVos' nomination made me cry, then got me angry. Her confirmation further pushed my fledgling political activism. Lourdes Smith Courtesy of the individual featured Smith is 40 years old and from Arizona, ranked fourth worst in the nation for education and 49 for pupil-to-teacher ratio. I am a mother of five children, one whom, Lulu, age 6, has special needs. I am also a school psychologist in a local public school district. I attended Catholic schools, and I have continued that tradition with my children. However, it has been a challenge with Lulu as she has more learning needs than most in her grade. We are also avid supporters of our public-school system. We donate each year to a public school through the Arizona public school tax credit program, and always vote for any override that brings more money into the public school. Working as a school psychologist in a Title I school, I see the inequalities that exist in regards to funding — special education is often first on the chopping block. The most concerning part of the DeVos appointment for me, is her lack of knowledge surrounding IDEA. It is appalling to me that someone who has no knowledge of such an important facet of education, is now in the position to do the most damage to it. This concerns me as a mother and as an advocate for other parents of special needs children. I fear that she will allow states to side-step federal law, and for those of us in states that already don’t see education as priority, things will just get worse. Furthermore, I worry about her affect on private religious schools. Historically, children with any type of disability were not able to attend Catholic schools. However, times are a changing. There is a national movement to bring inclusion into Catholic Schools. With DeVos in power, I am worried she will set us back by allowing for voucher programs and charter school to have parents sign away rights afforded to them under IDEA. Kristi Rieger Campbell Courtesy of the individual featured Campbell is 48 years old and lives in Virginia. My son Tucker was born, and everything was fine. 'Normal.' When he was 2, doctors said, 'kids speak when they’re ready to.' When he was 2-and-half, and still not talking, two teachers from a local public special needs preschool came to our home for an evaluation. They met us with kindness, grace, and complete acceptance of him. Together, we decided that Preschool Autism Classroom (PAC) would be the best fit. He started PAC at the age of 3. He was tiny. So vulnerable. PAC and the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that he received there helped him to find his voice. It wasn’t immediate, or easy, but the teachers and the school were amazing. They taught me as much as they taught him. They also potty trained him, and made him feel loved. Giving us a voucher to pay for Ciara to go to a charter school would effectively deny her any education. It's not about giving a student the money to attend a better school, it's about supporting the schools in providing the services each child needs. In our case, the best private schools would be the worst choice for Ciara. Today, four years later, he’s mainstreamed in a second-grade public school classroom with some support, and we still talk to his PAC teachers. I don’t believe that any of his current success would’ve happened without having been able to attend school with teachers who got it — who got him. We feel so blessed to have these services. The special needs private school near us is $40,000/year. We’re not poor, but we don’t have resources like that. His teachers, aides, and his school principals have pushed for inclusion, the least restrictive environment, and even when I’ve been nervous, they’ve been right. They want him to succeed. As I watched her interview and heard her say, 'leave it to the states,' my hands shook. Does she not know that IDEA is a federal law? I don’t believe that she does. I don’t believe that she cares about my son or about any child other than those who further her personal agenda. She bought her position, plain and simple. Alison Mulderrig Courtesy of the individual featured Mulderrig lives in California. The nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is, quite frankly, terrifying. My daughter Fiona is in fourth grade in a Catholic elementary school. She is very happy there and her report card shows all As. Ciara is in second grade and attends public school because the Catholic school does not have the ability to meet Ciara’s needs. Ciara has Down Syndrome and Autism. She is non ambulatory and non verbal. She has hearing loss and is medically fragile. For her safety, her doctors have requested a hospital/home-bound education. To this end, we met with her team from school district to have an IEP. There, we discussed how that would happen and how the school district would also provide the physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy Ciara needs. To provide for Ciara's safety, the board agreed that all therapy sessions would be done in a private room, with all equipment wiped down with Clorox between sessions. The plan is safe, individualized, and effective. The Christian or charter school that can provide the same services currently does not exist in San Francisco. To think that Mrs. DeVos might defund public schools in favor of a voucher system, to me shows a complete lack of understanding of what the actual needs of the students are. Giving us a voucher to pay for Ciara to go to a charter school would effectively deny her any education. It's not about giving a student the money to attend a better school, it's about supporting the schools in providing the services each child needs. In our case, the best private schools would be the worst choice for Ciara. I am shocked and saddened [that] Betsy DeVos won the vote and [I'm] very worried about her ideals and how they could affect my daughter.