Politics

Hassan questions Betsy DeVos’s knowledge of civil rights disabilities law for students

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Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire (left) and Betsy DeVos.

During a tense and contentious confirmation hearingon Tuesday, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan said she’s concerned about President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education pick, billionaire Betsy DeVos.

The freshman senator, whose son has cerebral palsy, sharply questioned DeVos’s commitment to public education for students with disabilities, and said she is worried that DeVos is unfamiliar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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“Senator, I assure you that, if confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that,’’ Devos said.

“With all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps,’’ Hassan said, adding that the need is to focus on enforcing federal law to ensure that all children have access to public education.

According to Hassan, the hearing was difficult in part because committee members “know that children with disabilities in at least some of the voucher programs that you have supported have gone with a voucher to a school, because of their disability had to leave the school, the school keeps the money, and they go back to public schools that now have even less resources to deal with them.”

In other words, Hassan said, many from the committee believe DeVos’ voucher approach has the potential to turn public schools “into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities or other kinds of particular issues, or the kids whose parents can’t afford to make up the difference between the voucher and the cost of private school tuition.”

After DeVos said that implementation of civil rights laws for students with disabilities should be left to the states, Hassan circled back to IDEA.

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“That’s a federal civil rights law,” Hassan said. “So do you stand by your statement a few minutes ago that it should be up to the states whether to follow it?”

“Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play,” DeVos said.

“So were you unaware what I just asked you about the IDEA? That it was a federal law?” Hassan pressed.

“I may have confused it.”

Hassan said DeVos’ limited knowledge of the IDEA and support for school voucher programs were “very troubling” to her. She urged DeVos to “become familiar” with the law that “guarantees absolutely basic protections to students with disabilities, to ensure that they are afforded a high quality education with their peers.”

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Hassan also raised questions about a foundation overseen by DeVos’s mother that gave $5 million to a conservative group, Focus on the Family, which promotes school prayer, abstinence-only sex education, and conversion therapy for homosexuality and opposes civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

Devos said her mother makes the decisions for the foundation.

But Hassan, in a follow-up question, said she had IRS documents up through 2013 that listed DeVos as the vice president of the foundation.

“Was that just a mistake on your part?” Hassan said.

“That was a clerical error,’’ DeVos said.

Aimee Ortiz can be reached at aimee.ortiz@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @aimee_ortiz.
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