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. 

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.