Students with disabilities could lose with COVID-19 stimulus package

Students with disabilities could lose with COVID-19 stimulus package
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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is the nation’s federal special education law. It provides funding, technical assistance and monitoring to ensure students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education. With the new COVID-19 stimulus package, the U.S. Congress will provide Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosSpecial counsel investigating DeVos for potential Hatch Act violation: report NEA president says Azar and DeVos should resign over school reopening guidance The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - You might want to download TikTok now MORE with the right to provide waivers to states for the IDEA implementation.

As a researcher in the area of education policy, I think this is extremely concerning. If DeVos’ past behavior has any predictive value for her future decisions related to equitable educational policies, then families of children with disabilities across the country should also be highly concerned.

During DeVos’ Senate confirmation hearings three years ago, she struggled to respond to basic questions posed by Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineFears grow of chaotic election Trump taps Amy Coney Barrett for Supreme Court, setting up confirmation sprint Supreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink MORE about special education. She was asked whether schools that receive tax dollars should be required to meet IDEA requirements, to which she replied, “I think that is a matter that’s best left for states.” Under federal law, the Department of Education is responsible for monitoring IDEA compliance.

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Texas serves as a perfect example of why federal oversight is critical. Recently, the Department of Education found that Texas created a policy that delayed or denied special education to eligible students and was also in violation of a federal statute prohibiting states from reducing funding for students with disabilities from year to year. 

Additionally, just last year, a federal judge ruled that the Department of Education’s delay of a rule that required states to address racial disproportionality in special education was illegal. The Obama-era rule required districts to address policies and practices that lead to “significant disproportionality” in special education for students of color. 

The Department of Education also planned to eliminate 29 programs and slash $17.6 million in funding for Special Olympics in the 2020 budget. U.S. Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanOvernight Defense: Nearly 500 former national security officials formally back Biden | 40 groups call on House panel to investigate Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds 40 groups call on House panel to investigate Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers MORE asked whether she knew how many students would be affected. DeVos replied, “I don’t know the number of kids.” The budget also included millions of dollars in cuts to the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, the American Printing House for the Blind, and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

The country is now facing extreme challenges dealing with COVID-19, and states and districts will need flexibility and support in providing education to students with disabilities. Still, leadership and creditability to make such decisions are lacking. 

Congress needs to reconsider providing DeVos with the power to grant waivers for IDEA implementation. Families need to join in solidarity with disability advocates and educators to demand special education remain intact and that stimulus money is directed toward preventing disruption of services.

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The Department of Education needs to ensure districts and schools have the resources available to provide educational and other related services to students with disabilities. This includes additional funding for technology, new digital platforms, and low-tech options that might consist of activities and packets coupled with family-resource guides that can support instruction and services in the home.

The Department of Education should also begin planning to support the delivery of compensatory services for students with disabilities who are now unable to receive special education due to school closures. The population of students with disabilities that will need to make up missed services at the public’s expense will be too burdensome for many rural and urban districts, particularly those in low-income communities.

IDEA was put in place to ensure that students with disabilities have access to a “Free and Appropriate Education.” As school leaders and teachers scramble to consider innovative ways to provide remote instruction to students with disabilities, ensuring that provisions are in place to prioritize protections for these vulnerable populations is more important than ever. 

Rather than allowing DeVos to be the gatekeeper of how states allocate resources for students with disabilities during this time of crisis, the federal government must help students with disabilities and their families at a critical moment. Our students with disabilities deserve their right to a free and appropriate public education and must be protected from a harmful disruption of services. 

David DeMatthews is an associate professor and the director of the Texas Principal Leadership Academy at The University of Texas at Austin.