The Words: What the heck is IDEA?

Last week Nicole asked me what effect I think a Trump presidency will have on IDEA. I told her I don’t know, but my optimism says…not much. Well, we now know the stance of proposed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: she’s unfamiliar with it. 

Sadly, Ms. DeVos’ astonishing ignorance on this, and a number of other very basic education tenets, was overshadowed by her, admittedly hilarious, grizzly bear comment. While that may be the sound bite that shines the best light on her silliness, it may actually be the least batshit thing she said over the course of her hearing. It’s a straw man, a distraction from the fact that this woman is at best unqualified, at worst the opponent of everything our education policy stands for. 

One of the first things I learned about communicating with the parents of my students is to leave the acronyms and the teacher jargon at the door. So I’m aware that tweeting “OMG DEVOS DOESNT UNDERSTAND IDEA” has little potential to make an impact to many people outside of education or the disabled community. So I thought I would translate. 

There was a time, a long, long time ago, presumably around the time America was still great, that students with disabilities were not granted the same rights as their peers. If you were blind, deaf, or had cognitive or emotional disabilities they were mostly out of luck when it came to schooling. If you were one of the lucky ones who lived in a forward thinking town, or you had a resourceful parent who knew how to get things done (“Is there a Mr. Gump?”), you may get to come to school and be babysat at a separate facility. Then came the 1960s. The interest in equality for all people helped put education into the public spotlight. In 1975 Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which required public schools to evaluate students with disabilities and provide them an education as close as possible to what non-disabled peers received. The EHA was succeeded by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990. IDEA!

There are six pillars of IDEA. 

1) The IEP: each student with disabilities has an individualized plan, built around their specific needs, designed an implemented by a team of professionals to provide the student with the best possible education. 

2) Free Appropriate Public Education: a student with disabilities is entitled to the same free schooling as non-disabled peers. 

3) Least Restrictive Environment: care must be taken to allow the student to attend the school environment as similar to typical peers as possible. 

4) Appropriate Evaluation: students are given special education services after going through an evaluation process designed to best identify and meet their needs. 

5) Parent and Teacher Participation: educators work hand in hand with families to ensure all are on the same page to deliver the best possible services. 

6) Procedural Safeguards: these guarantee that parents have access to their child’s records and outline their rights. 

So that is a very brief overview of IDEA. Like any other law, it is extremely long, complicated, and full of intricacy…the kind of intricacy that is probably not very interesting to a woman who does not see the value of our public school system. 

Look, I HATE the bureaucratic part of my job, the i-dotting and t-crossing, the repetitive paperwork. Every now and then I think longingly about a bygone era I never knew, when teachers just showed up and taught. The system can be terribly frustrating. Moreover, I can understand how a parent sitting in an IEP meeting can find it to be a sterile process, treating the student as a collection of data rather than a real, breathing human. I am ALL FOR any change that serves to humanize the process, but the reality is that education is important and we need safeguards to ensure we are meeting the needs of all our students. 

I would like to believe that Ms. DeVos was simply nervous, tripping over answers. Unfortunately, her history of favoring voucher programs over school improvement is worrisome. It’s likely she didn’t know the answer because she doesn’t know many answers related to public education…because Betsy DeVos does not believe in public education. And she is likely to be appointed as the Secretary of Education. That’s terrifying. 


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