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. 

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.