What Is the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act?

Betsy DeVos‘ hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions raised quite a few eyebrows, as the candidate for Secretary of Education appears to be unfamiliar with many components of the education system.

One exchange in particular stuck out — and no, it wasn’t the one about bears. Rather, it was the moment when Senator Tim Kaine pressed DeVos on the issue of disabled students in U.S. schools. DeVos soon revealed that she wasn’t familiar with the laws surrounding education rights for disabled people, nor was she convinced that disabled children should have equal access to education.

When Kaine asked if schools receiving federal funding should be required to provide education to disabled students, DeVos replied that this was a matter best left to the states.

This isn’t just in contradiction of federal law — more on that in a moment — but it also devalues the lives of disabled students, suggesting that they aren’t worthy of education.

The right to a free public education is an enshrined value in American life, designed to ensure that everyone has access to the same advantages. Historically, DeVos has supported private schools, and her comments about public education during the hearing certainly suggested that her opinion hasn’t changed.

Many disabled children, however, rely heavily on accessing education through public schools, which are barred from discrimination under several federal laws.

One of the most important is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which Senator Kaine referenced in his questions. You may also have heard it come up in the context of Senator Jeff Sessions, who has gone on record opposing the legislation. But unless you’re disabled or have disabled kids in school, you might not know much about the law.

IDEA specifically mandates that schools provide accommodations to disabled children, including screening children for learning disabilities and developing student-appropriate interventions to support learning.

The law was initially passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and retitled in 1990. It mandates that schools offer a “least restrictive environment” for education and stresses that, when possible, disabled children should be mainstreamed — put in classes with nondisabled students — rather than isolated in segregated special education classrooms. Nearly six million students are covered by IDEA, from children with brain injuries to autistic students.

IDEA is a huge component of the framework that supports disability rights in the U.S. Historically, disabled students were often — and systematically — excluded from the classroom, which deprived them of future opportunities. By asserting that disabled youth deserve an education just like everyone else, the government made it clear that all children belong in public life.

Disabled students are also covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides protections to all disabled Americans, including those in school. Both of these acts are federal civil rights laws, but DeVos didn’t seem familiar with IDEA or how it applies to education.

Notably, IDEA doesn’t apply to voucher schools. Charter schools historically have problems with disability violations, as do private schools more broadly. And sometimes, the only way disabled students can get an education is at a public school.

Chillingly, DeVos suggested that defunding public schools might be on the table under her administration. Such a drastic move would be catastrophic for low-income people of all ability levels across the U.S.

DeVos, like many other Trump nominees, supports privatization of public services, and she has dedicated a substantial amount of resources to promoting just that. If she succeeds, disabled students could be among the first to lose out.