A Little DeVos Parallel

Our potential Secretary of Education doesn’t appear to know what IDEA is—or how it works, anyway. I already had major reservations about her, but after watching the Senate confirmation hearings yesterday, I’m even more disturbed. (Though I admit that the part where she mused about marauding bears on Wyoming schoolyards was good for a laugh, at least.)

When asked about IDEA, she said she “might have confused it” and could not seem to answer any questions about it. How on earth can a person who may be running the Department of Education confuse IDEA, the most important piece of disability legislation since ADA?

If you’re not a parent of a child with a disability and you’re not involved in the school system at an administrative level, I could understand it. But the nominee for Secretary of Education? She needs to know what IDEA is! Thirteen percent of students in United States public schools are served by it—she needs to know what it is and how it works, and she needs to commit to enforcing it. (Okay, in my ideal world she needs to commit to enforcing it. But in anyone’s world, she needs to understand it. It is a huge part of education law!)

Here’s my one-sentence crash course on IDEA, in case you’re unfamiliar: IDEA stands for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it is federal law that guarantees students with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education, which is presumed to be in a general ed classroom with appropriate supports.

More personally: IDEA protects Sam’s right to get the education that will best prepare him for adult life. Period. Full stop. Without IDEA, he has nothing. Before IDEA, some kids with disabilities weren’t even educated. Those that were were sent to segregated classes that didn’t even come close to matching the education they would be exposed to in a mainstream classroom. (Want a little glimpse into it? Here’s a summary from the Department of Education that includes some description of what the education of disabled persons before IDEA was like.)

So when Betsy DeVos didn’t seem to understand that IDEA is federal legislation or even what it is, I was quite disturbed. When she repeatedly stated that “it should be a state issue,” my jaw dropped. It cannot be left to the states. Cannot. Unless every single state enacts legislation equal to (or hey—how about even better than?) IDEA, it will be disastrous for students with disabilities to leave their educational future up to the states.

After stewing about this since yesterday (and okay, laughing about the grizzly bear scenario), I got to thinking that Betsy DeVos running our schools is sort of akin to someone with no food-service experience running a restaurant. I decided a little parallel would be fun. Let’s imagine the world if Betsy DeVos set her sights on food service management.

Restaurant Management, Betsy-Style

In our little town, Foodville, it used to be that people could get a free meal at their local restaurant. It wasn’t the greatest food ever, but it was decent. Think Olive Garden. You’ve had better Italian food, but it’s not bad. It’s a lot better than the Sbarro at the mall. And hey—free breadsticks!

But Betsy takes over and decides to do away with the free meals. Instead, she’ll give all town residents a voucher to the restaurant of their choice. It’ll cost the government the same thing—the money they used to spend on people’s free Olive Garden meal will instead be given to them in a voucher that they can use at a restaurant they choose. It’ll be great!

It’s sounding good so far, right? Townspeople still get a free meal, but now they get to pick where they go. It might be a better meal! So the townspeople pick up their vouchers and head on over to the restaurant they want to go to.

Only it turns out some of the restaurants cost more than the voucher is worth, and the townspeople have to make up the difference. A lot of the people are okay with that—they can afford to chip in some extra money. But some people can’t. They end up having to go to another restaurant that’s not as good. But hey, it’s still a free meal, right? And probably still somewhat decent. Hopefully at least as good as Olive Garden.

Then the people with disabilities claim their vouchers and head to the restaurant of their choosing. But when they get there, they’re turned away. There’s no wheelchair ramp, and the person in the wheelchair can’t exactly roll up the five stairs leading to the restaurant door. “Sorry,” the manager says. “We can’t accommodate you.”

And then the blind person shows up with her voucher and asks for a Braille menu. “I’m so sorry,” the manager tells her. “We don’t have Braille menus, and no one can read the menu to you. We can’t accommodate you.”

Then the deaf person arrives but can’t hear the hostess when she asks how many are in his party. The hostess has a habit of covering her mouth with her hand when she talks, so the person can’t lip-read. And when the person tries to sign, the hostess says, “I’m sorry, I don’t sign. I’m afraid we can’t accommodate you.”

Then the person with an intellectual disability arrives and can’t read the menu because he hasn’t learned to read yet. He asks if someone can come read the menu to him. “I’m sorry,” the manager says. “We don’t have anyone who can read the menu to you. We can’t accommodate you.”

So one by one, all the people with disabilities leave the restaurant, voucher in hand, no meal in sight.

“Don’t worry,” the manager says brightly. “The Olive Garden is still open! You can take your voucher there!”

So they do. But the Olive Garden isn’t the same as it used to be. The money it used to get to provide meals has been diverted to vouchers, and it barely has enough money to stay afloat. They only have one server working the restaurant, and they’ve had to switch to lower-quality ingredients to save money. Instead of those nice breadsticks and a plate of carbonara, you now get a McDonald’s hamburger. Not even a cheeseburger, because all they’re required to give you is a hamburger, and that’s all they can afford.

But it wouldn’t be any better even if they could access the better restaurants. Because as unbelievable as it may seem, under the voucher system some of these people are required to sign away their right to a free and appropriate public meal when they agreed to use a voucher for their meal. Federal law was designed to protect disabled persons’ right to a meal of equal quality to everyone else’s, but when Betsy dismantled the meal system completely and changed it to vouchers, that right went away. Now all they’re entitled to is the most basic form of nourishment, nothing else.

So the leftovers who were refused service at the better restaurant eat their low-quality hamburgers at the Olive Garden. It’ll keep them alive, but it certainly isn’t a nutritional powerhouse. But they have to take what they can get, since their meal system was dismantled by someone who didn’t know how to run a restaurant but who thought the best answer was to blow up the whole system.

So eat at home, you say! There’s your answer. Well, that’s still an option, though perhaps not a viable one for many of the people who were turned away. Because it’s not cheap to have a disability—there are medical and therapy bills beyond what others have. And so many of these people have to work full-time to cover the cost, which leaves very little time or energy for making a home-cooked meal as good as they were getting at the Olive Garden.

And besides, under the old system, they had a choice. They could eat at home, or they could get their free meal at the Olive Garden, or they could pay for a better meal out of pocket. There was something for everyone, and hey—even if Olive Garden wasn’t the best meal out there, it was available to them and generally had what they needed.

This, my friends, is what I fear Sam faces if DeVos succeeds in dismantling the educational system. A life of McDonald’s-quality hamburgers that aren’t going to allow him to grow up as healthy as he could otherwise. And that makes me very, very sad. DeVos needs to understand the system she is talking about dismantling. She needs to understand all of it, not just the pieces that affect some people. She needs to understand how important the protection IDEA provides is for students with disabilities, and she needs to understand the implications her proposed changes could have on them.

If you haven’t had a chance to watch the confirmation hearings, I’ll share links here to the parts most directly related to disability and IDEA. Oh, and the grizzly clip. Because it’s just funny, and at this point we can all use a laugh, right?

Senator Tim Kaine’s questioning about whether all K-12 schools receiving federal funds should be required to meet IDEA (start at 1:17):

Senator Maggie Hassan’s questioning of DeVos about IDEA. This whole thing is worth watching. The part where it becomes apparent that DeVos is confused about IDEA occurs relatively near the end, but the whole clip is worth watching:

As promised, the grizzly bear clip. I realize we’ve all said silly things we regret, and she just happened to do it in front of millions, but the image of marauding grizzly bears just cracks me up!

I fear DeVos will be confirmed as Secretary of Education. I know she probably will be. But oh my god, I am afraid of the future of education under her.

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