I would not be at McGill University if it were not for the assistance of the United States of America’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law requiring schools to provide for the individual needs of students with disabilities. Guidelines set by the IDEA enabled me to succeed in a public education system because this law put me on an equal playing field as the rest of my classmates.
Betsy DeVos, whom President Donald Trump has nominated as Secretary of Education, terrifies me. In a Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 18, when questioned by U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, DeVos refused to state that all public schools should be held equally accountable to the IDEA requirements, and said that the decision to follow IDEA should be determined by the states. In the questioning, DeVos also did not seem to understand the difference between proficiency and growth. Proficiency is a student’s comparative performance over a standard benchmark, whereas growth is a student’s individual improvement over time—given the current educational debate on whether to transition from testing proficiency to testing improvement, DeVos’ apparent unfamiliarity with the terms is alarming. Her lack of appreciation for the importance IDEA is likely due to her lack of general lack of experience: She has never attended a public school, never sent her children to public schools, nor received a degree in Education. DeVos is extremely unqualified for the position of Secretary of Education, due her lack of knowledge on public education and her views of IDEA.
Schools need to be held to equal accountability when it comes to student disabilities. For every student, the purpose of going to school is to learn in order to succeed in life. If a school decides to allocate more money to a sports program and cut funds for students with disabilities—potentially violating IDEA guidelines—it sets disabled students up for failure. This is both morally and legally wrong, and such schools deserve to be held liable.
Allowing IDEA to be determined by state would be a disaster, as the quality of public education varies across states. For example, according to Forbes, the quality of public education in Massachusetts is equivalent to Hong Kong, which ranks fourth in the world, whereas the District of Columbia has an 8 per cent math proficiency among public school students, putting it on par with lower-ranking countries, like Mexico and Kazakhstan.
Personally, I have a mild to moderate hearing loss, a neuro-associative anxiety disorder, and have had multiple concussions. These all had the potential of being major roadblocks in my life, but my Massachusetts K-12 public school system upheld the standards set forth by IDEA and was supportive of my distinct learning needs. When I suffered from a speech impediment, they gave me free speech therapy which lessened my lisp. When my grades started plummeting on tests due to my inability to focus as a result of anxiety, I was given extended time. When I had to miss extended periods of school due to concussions, I was not reprimanded for my absences.
When discussing the help I received, I have to acknowledge my privilege: I attended a public school system in a wealthy Massachusetts suburb; I had the assistance of an amazing guidance counselor. Yet the importance of IDEA for me cannot be understated. To make sure that all states are held to the same standard, IDEA should be more uniformly enforced. The Department of Education should be rigorous in ensuring the Act’s accommodations and guidelines are followed.
Throughout his campaign, Trump promised that he would put the best people in his cabinet. DeVos is not only far from being the best—she is a danger to public education. Students with disabilities deserve better.