Assessing Betsy DeVos' Rollback on Disability Rights

Ten months in, the damage that DeVos is doing to America's most vulnerable is becoming clear.
By David M. Perry,
President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens during a parent-teacher conference at the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 14th, 2017.

Last January, Betsy DeVos went before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and delivered what may have been the worst performance of a potential cabinet secretary in modern history. She didn't seem to know anything about federal education policy, which wasn't surprising on its own: Her track record as a school-choice advocate in Michigan had emphasized privatization and theocracy, rather than pursuit of high-quality public education. Worse, from my perspective as the parent of a disabled child, she was specifically ignorant about special education, an arena where her prospective office has outsized influence. She got confirmed anyway, if narrowly.

Ten months into the Trump administration, the damage that DeVos and her appointees are doing to America's most vulnerable is beginning to show. A few weeks ago, she announced significant changes to the department's guidance on Title IX as it pertains to sexual assault in schools. Then, last week, the department rolled back 72 policy documents that specifically detailed the rights of disabled children in schools.

It's a little unclear whether now is the time to panic. Generally speaking, the documents—listed here—clarify how existing federal disability rights law applies to school districts around the country. In no cases did the Department of Education make clear what guidance they were overturning or where they simply feel there's a more recent document that should take precedence. The many disability-rights and education experts with whom I spoke over the past few days were divided, and wanted more time to go through the documents line by line. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, an organization focused on protecting the legal education rights of people with disabilities, issued an early statement insisting that the Department of Education justify each revocation.

Disability rights law is complicated. Understanding the details can mean the difference between access to services, or dangerous exclusion. Students and their caregivers often don't know their rights. Some school districts seem to like it that way in order to cut costs; recently, the Chicago Public Schools hired outside consultants to construct elaborate bureaucratic obstacles for students and their families, as explosively reported by Chicago Public Radio's WBEZ last week. In more benign cases, administrators and teachers may be as ignorant as students and caregivers. The Department of Education can help by explaining—in clear, non-legal language—precisely what rights students have and what procedures should be followed. When language is out of date, these guiding documents should be updated.

That doesn't seem to be what's happening here. Rebecca Cokley, senior fellow for disability policy at the Center for American Progress, tells me via direct message: "The DeVos administrations rescinding of SEVENTY-TWO [emphasis hers] guidance documents will impact people with disabilities from womb to the tomb. We want safer schools for our children, better and more effective programming to help them transition to employment to have better lives than our own." Cokley is not convinced that the Department of Education is on track to help with these goals.

Without guidance, as observed on Twitter by Donald Moynihan, professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, states and schools have "de-facto-discretion ... to deny access to services." Moreover, Moynihan added, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions' long-stated hostility to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as "the single most irritating problem for teachers," we can't look to the Department of Justice for help when the Department of Education fails to guide local districts.

What's more, the rollback of guidance on disability compounds DeVos' previous actions to make schools less safe. Soraya Chemaly, a feminist writer and activist, sees a grim convergence between the document revocations and DeVos' new directions on Title IX. Together, the two moves combine to significantly heighten the risk of disabled students experiencing sexual assault. As Chemaly told me over direct message, "Protections for students with disabilities and for victims of sexual assault were developed over years and by experts, for a reason," and that recent policy "will almost inevitably hurt the people most targeted and least likely to be able to advocate for themselves." Chemaly noted further that disabled students are significantly more likely to be assaulted than non-disabled students. Despite this vulnerability, the "Guidance on Procedural Safeguards and Due Process Procedures for Parents and Children with Disabilities," along with other key documents that make the remediation processes more transparent, are no longer available online. The whole mess, Chemaly adds, makes "the vulnerable more vulnerable and abusers more powerful in their ability to manipulate the system."

It's possible that, once experts have slogged through each of the documents and double-checked all standards, we will discover that these specific revocations aren't a crisis. The fear, however, will continue, because the disability-rights community is feeling the strain of being targeted by the Trump administration and the GOP in so many different ways. Over the summer, the slew of attacks on Medicaid left many disabled people and their caregivers terrified about losing health care, and about whether they'd be able to live in communities rather than institutions. Now, the Department of Education is issuing this mass revocation of guidelines. There's no reason to believe things won't get worse. Nish Weiseth, a writer and parent of a disabled child, characterized the recent move as an instance of this administration "keeping disabled people and their families in a perpetual state of trauma."

We're just beginning to scratch the surface of the damage that the Trump administration's particular combination of incompetency and vandalism can do. The Republicans have empowered a class of people who either don't understand federal policy or actively resist enforcing federal protections for the people and places in need. The first victims have been those multiply marginalized by factors such as race, class, gender identity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and, of course, disability. We've seen this manifest in the actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the agency raids hospitals and prevents teenagers from accessing reproductive rights. But there's no shortage of damage to come, and so many of the targets involve disability.

Someday soon there will be elections for local, state, and federal officials in your communities. Progressives need to explain that policy is a matter of life or death, so voters can see the consequences of these disastrous appointments in their lives. Because when a theocratic vandal takes control of the education system in America, no one's access to a safe, high-quality public education is secure.

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