White House rolls back ‘unnecessary’ guidance for students with disabilities

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The Department of Education has rescinded 72 documents on the rights of students with disabilities, calling them “outdated” and indicating that they are no longer necessary.

Officials rolled back the documents under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act earlier this month. According to a newsletter sent Friday, the department rescinded the documents on October 2.

In the newsletter, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services wrote that “a total of 72 guidance documents that have been rescinded due to being outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective – 63 from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and 9 from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA).”

The documents addressed a range of issues, including advice for parents advocating for their children and how schools should best utilize special education funds. Lindsay Jones, who works with the National Center for Learning Disabilities, told the Washington Post that the latter is causing particular alarm.

“All of these [guidances] are meant to be very useful…in helping schools and parents understand and fill in with concrete examples the way the law is meant to work when it’s being implemented in various situations,” Jones said.

The effort is part of a larger one by the Trump administration to do away with guidance deemed superfluous. In February, President Trump signed an executive order “to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens” across federal agencies.

A review of past guidance is not completely without precedent. But that doesn’t mean organizations like the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) aren’t concerned.

“Administrations regularly engage in reviews  to cull out guidance that is no longer accurate or supported by statute,” NDRN communications specialist David Card told ThinkProgress. “We are still exploring the impact of the different guidance that have been rescinded, however, the concern has arisen that by rescinding older guidance, should the Department rescind more recent guidance, students with disabilities will be left with no protections.”

For disability rights advocates, the rescission is disconcerting for other reasons. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made headlines during her Senate confirmation hearing when she appeared confused about the Disabilities Education Act and its intended purpose. To advocates, the latest roll-back is further proof that DeVos was an unwise choice.

Asked at her confirmation whether she supported “the federal requirement” protecting students with disabilities, DeVos dodged, instead saying the issue was “certainly worth discussion.” She also claimed that implementation of the law was best left to the states.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), whose son has cerebral palsy, pressed DeVos on that point later in the hearing.

“Were you unaware, when I just asked you about IDEA, that it was a federal law?” Hassan asked. DeVos replied that she “may have confused it.”

DeVos’ confirmation ultimately required a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence after a number of lawmakers raised questions about her qualifications and fitness for the role. DeVos is now in charge of rescinding the guidance about which she previously appeared confused.

Over the summer, the Department of Education sought input on regulations “that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement or modification.” Disability rights advocates reportedly encouraged the department to keep all guidance relating to students with disabilities — something that seemingly went ignored.

Education Department spokesperson Liz Hill told Talking Points Memo that there were “no policy implications to these rescissions” and that the rollback would have no impact on students with disabilities. But as of Monday, advocacy organizations were still unsure of what the impact might be and looking into the matter further.

Some are concerned about the murky rationale for the rescission.

“While NDRN appreciates the transparency the Department is demonstrating by releasing the list of rescinded guidance, we are highly concerned that there is no accompanying rationale for these actions,” Card said. “We hope going forward the Department will also include the reasons for their determinations for each item.”

Card added that “NDRN and others” would be “watching this process carefully to ensure that useful guidance that is relied upon by the field is not eliminated.”

DeVos has come under fire for similar decisions before. In February, both the Education and Justice Departments announced a roll-back of protections for transgender students. The departments wrote that the White House hoped to “further and more completely consider the legal issues involved” and wanted to emphasize “primary role of the States and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”

Last month, DeVos also rolled back rules fleshing out how schools should deal with sexual assault, arguing the rights of the accused were not emphasized enough under current guidance. At the time, advocates for sexual assault survivors told ThinkProgress that DeVos’ actions would likely keep victims from reporting their experiences, forcing them to suffer in silence.

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