An Open Letter to Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)

Dear Senator Collins:

Almost nineteen years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I sat in a conference room on the University of Maine and had dinner with the cohort of pre-service teachers I’d be together with for the next 13 months as we studied to obtain our entry-level Maine public school teaching certificates in the University of Maine’s M.A.T. program. I spent the following academic year interning and then student teaching in some of Maine’s public schools, including Old Town High Schooland Hampden Academy. I learned the craft of teaching from excellent, highly-trained, and deeply experienced mentor teachers, and studied with some top-notch University of Maine professors. That spring, I accepted a job teaching high school English at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.

I am originally from New Jersey, and after two years of teaching at OHCHS, I moved back to New Jersey, where my mother was battling cancer. But Maine – and particularly Maine’s education system and Maine’s students – remain dear to my heart.

One of the two most important courses I took during my master’s program at the University of Maine was my course in inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. In that course, I learned about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. (“IDEA”), and what my responsibilities were going to be as a general education teacher tasked with educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, as required by IDEA.

As I am sure you know as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, what the least restrictive environment means is that children with special needs are required by law to be placed in a general education classroom or a setting as close to the general education setting as much as possible consistent with that child’s right to receive a free and appropriate public education. That is, the least restrictive environment provision is IDEA’s anti-segregation provision: it precludes public schools from simply shunting students with disabilities off to the side, separate and unequal, with little or no meaningful access to peer interaction with typically developing students.

During the two years in which I taught at OHCHS, I attended countless IEP meetings, and worked diligently to effectively implement IEPs in my classroom. I served students with all sorts of special needs in my general education classroom, and I believe all students – both typically developing and those with special needs – benefited from learning together. When appropriate, I also supported decisions to move children in my classroom out of my classroom to resource rooms or other environments that could better meet their needs, as the least restrictive environment must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes is not the general education classroom. I always thought carefully about those decisions, and worked to make sure that my general education classroom was as inclusive as possible for students with special needs.

When I returned to New Jersey, I left teaching and eventually enrolled in law school. In private practice, my proudest work to date has been my work as a pro bono attorney on impact litigation filed by disability and education advocates to try to force New Jersey’s Department of Education to faithfully implement the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA, as New Jersey, unlike Maine, had – and sadly continues to have – one of the worst records in the country on including students with special needs in general education settings. Unlike my requirement in Maine almost twenty years ago, to this day, New Jersey does not require its pre-service general education teachers to take even one credit of coursework specifically aimed at learning to teach students with special needs in general education classrooms, which I believe at least partly explains New Jersey’s problematic record on implementing the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA.

At this point, it is apparent that the only thing that might help New Jersey enter the 21st Century on this issue would be meaningful enforcement of IDEA’s least restrictive environment provisions by some combination of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Office of Civil Rights. As a result, it is imperative that the Secretary of Education – of either party – have considerable expertise in the language, provisions, implementation, and enforcement of IDEA (and Section 504).

I watched Betsy DeVos’s HELP committee hearing, and I’m watching the vote (well, actually, this far into the letter, the procedural wrangling following the vote) live right now. What boggles my mind is what one of your colleagues – I can’t recall which one right now – just said about the U.S. Department of Education having essentially two jobs when it comes to K-12 education: (1) to carry out the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) and (2) to carry out IDEA. What was clear as day at Ms. DeVos’s HELP committee hearing was that Ms. DeVos was dangerously unfamiliar with at least one half of her job: that half of her job in which she’s tasked with ensuring implementation of IDEA.

As a cabinet level position, Secretary of Education cannot be an entry-level job. Yet there is no question that even I have significantly more familiarity and experience with IDEA than Ms. DeVos. When you were my Senator, I had great respect for you and your primary concern with effectively representing the people of Maine. You are no longer my Senator, but I continue to believe that you have integrity and that the people of Maine will support you so long as you vote your conscience.

As a fellow American, I urge you to vote no on Betsy DeVos when her nomination comes before the full Senate. Every child, parent, teacher, child study team member, and other educator or related services professional deserves an education leader in Washington who has significant expertise in his or her job. Half of Ms. DeVos’s job when it comes to K-12 education is implementing IDEA. Ms. DeVos demonstrated her lack of expertise in this area, and, even more concerning, has not expressed outrage at the fact that students with disabilities are being asked to waive their rights under IDEA if they want to access school voucher programs.

Our children, our parents, our teachers, and our country deserves better. Please put the people of Maine and the United States ahead of party loyalty. Please vote no on Betsy DeVos’s nomination when her nomination comes before the full Senate.

Very truly yours,

Sarah Blaine