After an initial split in the Senate earlier this month, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
But while DeVos ruffled feathers among some educators because of her favor of charter schools and vouchers — as well as other issues raised in her confirmation hearing — the outlook on her effect regarding higher-education has been met with less fanfare. Some special-education professors, however, are expressing concerns about how her education policies might affect them.
Matthew Brock, an assistant professor in special education who specializes in severe disabilities, said voucher programs — which can result in public school students being able to choose to attend, and then send state money to, private schools — can create problems for special-education students and their fit within the system.
“(The) concern is that Betsy DeVos, in particular, is advocating for this voucher system, but it gets really complicated when you start figuring (out) how students with disabilities would fit into that voucher system,” Brock said. “It doesn’t seem like she understands those issues or has thought through how to deal with them, and it’s really complicated.”
As of right now, 14 states, including Ohio, offer traditional voucher program options, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates for the program say it gives parents the right to choose the best education for their child.
While some are concerned with DeVos’ effect on their future professions and the children they teach, many in higher education don’t know what to expect from DeVos regarding her effect on higher education.
Barry Toiv, the vice president of public affairs at the Association of American Universities, said DeVos’ record on higher education is scarce.
“What’s interesting about Secretary DeVos is that she has had very little to say about this sector either before or since President Trump selected her for this position,” Toiv said in an email.
It’s difficult to speculate whether DeVos has any plans for higher education, but she signaled in her confirmation hearing that the Department of Education might soften some of the federal regulations on colleges and universities, including what some Republicans have called overreach regarding federal investigations of sexual assault and Title IX breaches.
Toiv said he is hopeful, following DeVos’ confirmation, that the Department of Education and the AAU can continue to support one another’s goals of providing federal aid to low- and middle-income students.
Brock said much of his unease came from DeVos’ lack of knowledge on what he called basic concepts in special education during the confirmation hearings, including her unfamiliarity with IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law.
“It’s really a big unknown factor of what she’s going to do if and when she understands the special ed system and how it works,” Brock said.
For some students studying special education, DeVos’ nomination is worrisome for the future of the field.
Madelyn Dukart, a third-year in special education, said her own concerns came from DeVos’ intent to make IDEA state law, rather than a federal act, which would allow individual states to decide whether public institutions offer appropriate education for students with disabilities.
“She’s mostly just targeting public education, which is typically where students that have disabilities are educated because a lot of private schools don’t have to fund (in) certain circumstances, but public schools are required to,” Dukart said. “Hopefully, it won’t be too bad, but it mostly just makes me worried about whether or not certain services are going to be provided or paid for, or if that’s going to be up to the school district or me as a teacher in that field. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen with it, it just make some kind of anxious.”
Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson said working with DeVos will be business as usual for the university.
“We will work with all of our elected officials in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, and partners in organizations like (the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities) and AAU to advance higher education and research, which are critical to our national competitiveness and prosperity,” he said in an email.