On February 7, 2017, Betsy DeVos was confirmed with the narrowest of margins by Congress. Senators split 50-50, which required Vice-President Mike Pence to cast a historic tie-breaking vote in DeVos’ favor. Many special education activists and groups, teachers, and parents had urged their Senators to vote against DeVos amidst concerns that she was unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education. At her confirmation hearings, she appeared to know almost nothing about special education laws, at one point suggesting that special education was a matter for the states and not something that the federal government should concern itself with. In fact, federal law governs most special education and disability rights matters. Were it otherwise, a student could move from one state to another and suddenly find herself without any special education services. As the law stands now, all states must provide a certain level of services, and individual states are free to provide more than the minimum if they choose to do so. Massachusetts has elected to do this and provides some additional protections to students with disabilities that are not available under the federal law.
As Secretary DeVos begins her term, all those concerned with special education rights must pay close attention to any new guidance, regulations, or proposals to amend federal special education or disability laws. It is possible, as DeVos becomes acquainted with the area, that the new Secretary will see the value of the IDEA (the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and other disability-rights statutes and move to preserve and strengthen them. The opposite is also possible. It would be wise to be vigilant in the days and weeks to come.