Tour DeVos

Minimum progress for students with disabilities “preposterous,” Betsy DeVos says in Denver

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat
Betsy DeVos, center, at Denver's Firefly Autism House.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, flanked by school officials at a private autism center in Denver, called on the nation’s public schools to work with parents to better serve students with special needs.

Minimum progress for students with disabilities, she said, “is preposterous. Our students deserve better.”

DeVos’s statement comes nearly six months after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that set a new — and higher — standard for how schools educate students with special needs.

DeVos spoke Wednesday after touring the Firefly Autism center as part of her first multi-state tour as education secretary.

The location was in keeping with the theme of what the federal education department is billing the “Rethink Schools” tour. DeVos is promoting a vision of school choice that includes a roster of schools that fill niches serving students with particular needs. The premise, for DeVos, is that schools haven’t changed significantly in a century and are in need of a reboot.

“We must rethink what education means for every student,” she said in Denver. “Different students living in different places demand different solutions.”

The Denver-based autism center was chosen not just because of its specialization but because of its role in the landmark Supreme Court case that involved a south suburban Denver family.

The family decided to pull their son, known in court filings as Endrew F., from the Douglas County School District after his learning stalled. They subsequently enrolled Endrew at Firefly, where tuition can run up to $78,000 per year.

The family sued the school district seeking reimbursement. The family claimed the district failed to provide Endrew with a “free appropriate public education,” as required under federal law.   

Lawyers for the school district argued that educators were meeting the minimum standard required by the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Endrew’s family. In doing so, the court raised the standard schools must meet to educate students with disabilities. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion, a higher standard “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The high court also referred the question of whether the district should reimburse the family back to lower courts. 

DeVos on Wednesday did not issue any new department directives or give any indication of what the standard for serving students with special needs should be.

During her comments, DeVos did criticize “artificial barriers” schools create to meet the needs of students. She did not identify those barriers. 

“When it comes to educating students with special needs,” she said, “failure is not an option.”

DeVos said parents should have the freedom to choose whichever school best meet their students’ needs.

“They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court,” she said.

Firefly’s expensive programs are paid for by a variety of sources. In most cases, school districts unable to serve students cover the cost of tuition, Firefly officials said. Private insurance and Medicaid also contribute. Only about 1 percent of the center’s budget comes directly from families.

Nineteen students from eight school districts are enrolled at Firefly. One student from Limon, on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, travels nearly four hours a day round trip to attend the center.

Firefly Executive Director Jesse Ogas said he told DeVos that the state’s public schools — and their tax dollars — were critical to Firefly.

“I never want to discount how important our school districts are,” he said. “It’s a strong partnership and without our district partners, we wouldn’t be here today.”

He added that the school districts aren’t receiving the federal dollars they were promised to educate students with special needs.

“They’re not funded at the level they should be,” he said.

Ogas said DeVos, a critic of the traditional public school system, was open to his concerns about funding and the role it plays in supporting students after they’re enrolled in Firefly. Not only do school districts pay for students to attend the center, they often provide transportation and help complete federally required individualized education plans for students.

How — and where — to best serve students with special needs is an ongoing debate in public education. Many advocates for students with disabilities favor full inclusion in schools and, when possible, general education classrooms. Those who embrace specialized centers like Firefly may see the setting as a bridge to a more inclusive environment.

In Denver Public Schools, district officials and charter school operators are operating under a compact that calls for charter schools to open centers for students when special needs when asked.

After her remarks in Denver, DeVos was scheduled to tour the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

In visiting a private center serving children with autism and a college campus that is also a military installation, DeVos limited the potential for the kinds of public protests that have followed her on other trips. Hundreds turned out in July to protest DeVos’s appearance at a conservative political conference in Denver.

On Wednesday, no more than a handful of protesters shadowed DeVos outside the Firefly autism center, holding signs in support of a program that provides protections for young immigrants. The Trump administration has announced it will roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, initiative. DeVos has said her “heart is with” DACA recipients but indicated lawmakers must settle the issue.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the U.S. Supreme Court did issue some new guidance in what a higher standard for special education is. 

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.