What do I think of Betsy DeVos?

As someone who has benefitted from and worked in public education all my life–as a teacher, hearing officer, lawyer, author, student, and parent–and is currently working to transform special education by creating a new law, I am asked this question a lot.   I don’t know much about her and look forward to learning more.

What I know that she has worked as a philanthropist, favoring parental choice through vouchers and charter schools. HMMM. For me the interesting question is, How did we get here?  How did our US public school system reach this point–that an advocate for choice, often out of our schools may become our next Secretary of  Education?

Valerie Strauss’s recent Answer Sheet column, “Democrats reject her, but they helped pave the road to education nominee DeVos” helps me understand what’s going on a bit.  Strauss’s point is that Democrats have paved the road through their recent approaches that now appear to be backfiring. A column worth reading.


In the special education realm,  I see an analogous situation. Special education has succeeded over the last 40 years in providing access to all students with disabilities to public education. That was a huge victory worth celebrating. Yet, beyond the success, the special education law and system has continued  to grow, morph and become dysfunctional–often ignoring the voices of many educators and parents and often in the face of flawed (or nonexistent) objective data.  My upcoming book, Special Education 2.0–Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law, sets out much of this history and proposes five new directions going forward.

Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with Ms. DeVos.  Good question.  I see a parallel to Ms. Strauss’s recent column. Let me paraphrase from the book.

Among many, many reforms that public schools need–to be excellent for all students–is special education. Since that is the field I know best, let me focus on it here.

Special education needs systemic and radical reform to move beyond its successes  and tweaks over the past 40 years. We need a new law; a new approach. And, to get the movement forward, we need  to start the long-overdue national conversation among all stakeholders to build a better law so public schools, the backbone of this nation, can be equitable and excellent for everyone.

Continuing to avoid the conversation by tweaking special education and growing it– is risky. Avoidance leaves many voices unheard and encourages, even unwittingly, the further splintering of public education. This splintering leads to the growth of schools for the haves (public, private, elite, home, and others) without addressing the needs of the have-nots (students who can’t afford their way out or who nobody wants, in part because they have multiple needs—social, disability, poverty). Also, inadvertently, among many other areas of public education that need systemic and radical reform, not fixing special education may help pave the way for and fuel the current school choice and vouchers push.

Hence, Ms. DeVos. Much is at stake for our schools and children.  We need to hear from all stakeholders in public education, even those with discordant voices. We need to breaks taboos.  As a first step, we need to talk.