School of Education News

NPR uses expertise of UW-Madison's Mead to help put DeVos’ testimony in perspective

June 11, 2017

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday, June 6, where she was repeatedly asked by lawmakers if, under a federal voucher program, she would prohibit private schools from discriminating against children with disabilities and LGBTQ students.

A report from NPR’s Cory Turner explains how, over and over again, DeVos deflected this barrage of pointed questions related to these topics with one answer: "Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law."

According to NPR, DeVos used this response 14 times.

But what, exactly, does that mean?  Recent reports, including an NPR investigation of Indiana's voucher program, have documented private schools excluding these students.

In an effort to further examine these topics and put DeVos’ comments in perspective, NPR spoke with several experts, including UW-Madison’s Julie Mead.

Mead is a professor with the School of Education's Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis who researches and writes about topics related to the legal aspects of education. Her work centers on legal issues related to special education and legal issues raised by various forms of school choice.

NPR reports: “When it comes to protecting students with disabilities from discrimination, schools take their cues from three separate federal laws: the Americans With Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. But civil rights experts say that, in a hypothetical federal voucher system, none would offer strong guardrails.”

NPR continues: “First, the ADA. Like Title IX, it includes an exemption for private, religious schools and thus limited protection in a voucher system. Section 504 does not offer religious schools an exemption and would likely provide students with disabilities some protections from discrimination in a federal voucher program.” But, experts say, it’s a low bar because the law only requires that private schools that receive federal funds make "minor adjustments" to accommodate students with disabilities.

"Those schools must provide reasonable accommodations" for students with disabilities, Mead tells NPR.

"But they do not have to alter their existing programs or add anything to them,” Mead adds. “What that means is, if their existing program does not provide any special education or related services, then they don't have to provide any."

To read much more about this nuanced hot-button topic, check out the entire report for free on this web page.

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