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To Betsy DeVos, From a Special Needs Mom Filled With Hope

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Ms. DeVos, I hear you are the subject of a lot of controversy. To see my newsfeed, one would think you have already committed a crime! My homeschooling friends have fears about you might do to their homeschooling freedoms, and my public school friends have fears about what you might do to their funding.

Let me tell you why I’m the one filled with hope.

I am a mom to seven kids. Four of my children came to us having suffered trauma and loss early in life. Either as a result of their difficult beginnings or biology, all four have dyslexia and three have auditory processing disorder. Out of my seven children, two are neurotypical. At the time we made the decision to homeschool, five of my children were on IEPs and four were also in the ESL program at our local public school. This was only after I obtained an advocate, filed complaints with the Department of Justice and Department of Education over the school’s refusal to evaluate my children for services or provide an adequate ESL program. I begged and pleaded with the school district to please evaluate my children for special education and heard every excuse under the sun as to why they didn’t think it was a good idea.

I experienced one heavily educated and profoundly qualified administrator sent from Central Office to an eligibility meeting who told me, “We want to make sure we aren’t violating your son’s civil rights by finding him eligible for special education when he really shouldn’t qualify.” Yes, I had IDEA thrown in my face at my son’s eligibility meeting where my social worker and I sat in dismay as he was found ineligible due to “low cognitive ability.” The school psychologist said, “We want to be careful not to set goals where we expect much progress. Given his ability, it’s not fair to expect him to really progress.” My son has dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, is a non-native English speaker, and experienced trauma early in his life. Yet the people who should have been advocating to help him overcome those struggles decided that he was simply just not capable of progress. Having “borderline cognitive ability” made him ineligible for services due to the lack of discrepancy in his poor academic scores.

This scenario played out over and over with my children. “Borderline cognitive ability” is the keynote to a speech against qualifying for special education. I fought for them to be fairly evaluated a second time and brought lawyers to their next eligibility meetings. The resulting IEPs were literally forged with my dogged determination and tears.

Imagine the feeling, then, of thinking you had finally figured out how to win the game, but suddenly the rules were changed by the other players and they refused to share the playbook. I thought IDEA was the standard by which children with disabilities were identified and helped. Instead my experience was that it has become the screen used to keep qualification for services at a minimum, and the filter for keeping specific programs out of reach for children who need them. I believe a system where adequate progress is determined by those providing the services, not by real life results of those receiving them, is a system set up to fail the very ones it’s meant to help.

I had to watch my kids struggle both before I was able to have them properly evaluated, and then continue to watch in horror while their IEPs were not complied with and needed services were not provided all in the name of “adequate progress.” I was on the phone, email and social media every single day trying to find someone, somewhere who cared enough to help me change the way things were done.

Ultimately there was no one willing to stand with me. Yes, our community could have risen up and demanded better, but that’s the thing about knowing everyone in a small town. People were scared of losing their jobs or their standing in the community for exposing how a school system can use the legal language in IDEA as a screening tool to actually prevent children from receiving services. Yes. You read that right.

As a mother, I had to choose between taking on a corrupted system or focusing my time and energy on my children at home.

It’s been two years since we pulled the kids out, and my only regret about that decision is that I did not do it sooner. It has been a hard pill to swallow accepting that the school received thousands of federal dollars for each of my children identified as having a disability while refusing to provide necessary services under federal law. As a homeschooling parent I receive exactly $0 to help with resources or services for education. We cannot even take off expenses on our taxes.

So you see, Ms. DeVos, I have already lived this nightmare people speak of fearing. My children were denied what they needed, and to this day I am not sure why our community did not rally for us. I can speak from experience that it’s never easy to protest against “the way it’s always been.”

What I can tell you is that the last thing I wanted to see right now was one more overly qualified and richly experienced educator placed in a position to keep things “the way they are.”

You’ve made mistakes, but I hope you have learned greatly from them. I hope you have learned what works and what doesn’t so you can work to ensure a higher quality education for all of our children. Why else would a person want a position such as the one you have just been confirmed for?

Please know that for me, a school choice voucher is what I’ve been praying for. It’s literally the only way we can possibly manage to provide the resources our children need. In my experience, I can educate all of them, at home, for far less than the public school was receiving and do a far better job. I’m not sure if that’s a kudos to me or a sad revelation of our school system. Whichever it is, Ms. DeVos, I want you to know that as a special needs mom, I am sincerely hoping you and the programs you implement are a great success because my children deserved better.

Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

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Photo source: C-SPAN video

Originally published: February 9, 2017
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