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What Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Means for My Kids with Special Needs

betsy devos

When my 13-year-old daughter got home from school last Tuesday, I drew her close to me and apologized.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry the grown-ups have let you down. We tried; we really did.”

She pulled away from me, saying, “What the hell!?! Everyone is always saying that my generation is the future. What kind of future are we going to have if we’re uneducated? The adults, who are supposed to take care of us, just picked someone who is completely unqualified for the position.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you give your child unfettered access to news, encourage her to form her own opinions, and push her constantly to articulate them.

I had made no secret of my intense opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the position of Secretary of Education. (Lest you, dear reader, assume that my kid is simply parroting back the rhetoric she hears at the dinner table, let me assure you that our household is headed by two adults who typically have differing opinions, which lead to heated discussions. So our kids are exposed regularly to the back-and-forth discourse.)

DeVos’ responses during her Senate confirmation hearings served only to support my deep concerns about her. As the mother of children with special needs, I am dismayed by Mrs. DeVos’ clear lack of comprehension regarding the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the application of FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) for students who require interventions and additional support in school. As the mother of a daughter, I am horrified by Mrs. DeVos’ inability to confirm her intentions to uphold and enforce the part of Title IX that requires colleges and universities to respond rapidly and effectively to reports of sexual violence or else risk their federal funding. As a parent of public school students, I abhor Mrs. DeVos’ plan to introduce school vouchers that will divert needed funds from our already financially-tapped schools to support those parents who choose to send their kids to private or charter schools or choose to homeschool.

My son Benjamin, whose needs are far more significant, has needed a variety of accommodations and support over the years. Though educated in the public school system for the majority of his academic career, he moved to a private school that specializes in complex learning disorders in the 10th grade when his needs were beyond the supports his school district had available. It is because of IDEA that he is guaranteed the same access to education as any other student regardless of his particular needs, and he is ensured that education until graduation of high school or age 21, whichever comes first.

The new Secretary of Education does not seem to have a clear understanding of how IDEA works. Her strong push for school vouchers will take much needed funding away from the districts that are already meeting the needs of the increased number of students with disabilities as well as the general student population. Private schools are not bound by IDEA, and the majority of them typically do not take the “harder” students. Also, vouchers are unlikely to come close to the extremely high cost of educating kids like Ben.

Our little guy, Jacob, was identified with some pretty significant reading issues while in the first grade. Though mainstreamed, he is pulled out of his mainstream classroom for more than 40% of the academic day. The daily work that he does with the reading specialist crosses a variety of subject areas and has been critical to his success as a student, as well as having a positive impact on his self-esteem.

Our family, like thousands of others, will take a significant financial hit should IDEA be repealed and/or a school voucher system put into place—the type of financial impact that would drastically affect our quality of life, and catastrophically affect the lives of other, less-fortunate families.

And that is just one of the reasons why my daughter was so upset to hear the news.

But I have also made no secret my intense faith in the democratic system.

From a young age, I was taught that reaching out to our elected officials, both in support and in opposition, is, after voting, the most effective way for a concerned citizen to make her voice heard: from the letters I wrote to President Carter in 1978 about a little Refusnik girl named Jessica Katz to the letter I wrote to Senator Alan Cranston in 1982 regarding the Lebanon War, to the many, many marches and rallies I’ve attended over the years. My parents instilled in me the belief that showing up is what matters and that it DOES make a difference.

Maybe that’s why I felt so absolutely devastated by the 51-50 Senate vote to confirm Mrs. DeVos as the Secretary of Education.

I’d spent COUNTLESS hours attempting to get a live person on the phone in ANY of my senator’s eight offices. (One day, I did actually count; it took me 104 minutes.) I wrote letters and sent faxes. I tweeted. And I kept calling. For days and days and days. And not just me. But thousands of other folks here in my state. From both sides of the aisle. Clearly outlining our concerns and protestations regarding the candidate and her appalling lack of basic knowledge regarding federal law and how it applies to education. And it didn’t seem to make a whit of difference.

I felt as though I had wasted my time and effort on a desperate attempt to save our public education system. The thumping in my head began at the base of my neck and crept upwards. I rooted out the chocolate in the pantry and wanted to hide in my bed with Netflix and drown out the overwhelming sense of impending doom.

But today is a new day.

Psalm 23, which is typically associated with death, never ceases to provide me with hope, and I often return to it when I feel engulfed by pain or fear or desperation.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.

I walk through the valley.

I am not stuck in that valley. Not forever, anyway. I am going to get through to the other side. That is God’s promise.

I needed time to wallow in that thick, unyielding pool of hopeless desperation. To thrash about emotionally until I could relinquish power to the reality and prepare to move past it. As with quicksand, however, it is only with slow, calm movements that one can be released from the cloying grips of hopelessness and return to a renewed sense of purpose.

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