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. 

Fact check

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a remarkable claim: “Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created.”

This statistic bolsters DeVos’s view that schools need to radically change to accommodate a rapidly evolving economy.

But there’s a problem: that number appears to have no basis in fact.

A version of the 65 percent claim has been percolating for some time, across the world. After a number of British politicians repeated some iteration of the statistic, the BBC investigated its source.

That report found the claim gained popularity in a 2011 book by Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor; this in turn was cited by a New York Times article. But attempts to track that claim back to an actual study have failed, which Davidson herself now concedes, saying she no longer uses the figure.

Others making the claim offer an even flimsier citation. For instance, a report released by the World Economic Forum says, “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types,” and simply cites a series of popular YouTube videos (which doesn’t even appear to make that precise claim).

Some even say the number is higher: A Huffington Post headline said that “85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet.” The piece links to a report by Dell, which bases the claim on “experts” at a workshop organized by a group called Institute for the Future.

In short, no one has pointed to any credible research that lands on the 65 percent figure. When asked for a source for DeVos’s statistic, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the 65 percent figure “might be an underestimation,” pointing to the Dell report, which offers no specific sourcing.

Of course, making predictions about the future of work is inherently tricky. But a recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated areas where the most new jobs would be created between 2016 and 2026. The positions included software application developers but also personal care aides, nurses, fast food workers, home health aides, waiters, and janitors — and though that’s less than 10 years in the future, these are mostly jobs that have been around for some time.

Sweeping, unsourced claims like this about the future economy are not uncommon — and seem to be a driving force behind some policymakers’ approach to education. The fact that DeVos’s go-to number isn’t backed up by evidence raises questions about the foundation of her view that schools need dramatic overhaul.

After citing the 65 percent figure, DeVos continued, saying, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.