Lawmakers want federal special education site restored

By:  Greg Toppo

Two congressional lawmakers are asking the Trump administration to restore a missing U.S. government website that helps families navigate a complex federal law on students with disabilities. They also want U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ assurance that the site won’t be stripped down during her tenure.

Education advocates late last month noticed that the site, idea.ed.gov, had been shut down. It has since reappeared, but in the past few days it has linked to a generic page offering information about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Eduation Act (IDEA).

The Education Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but after the site initially went down, an unnamed department spokesman told The Washington Post that the agency was working on the problem. “The site was not taken down,” the spokesman said, adding that the department had known about it since Feb. 8, one day after DeVos was sworn in.

Server issues related to the site, he said, had plagued it since at least Jan. 27.

The Post noted that the site was not working on DeVos’ first morning in office — that led special-education advocates to fret about her approach to a sensitive issue that affects millions of students.

Two weeks earlier, during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, DeVos stumbled over a question about whether states were obligated to follow IDEA, apparently not recognizing that it is a federal law. She later said that if confirmed, she would be “very sensitive” to students’ special needs.

But the hearing unleashed concerns from special education groups — in a Jan. 26 letter to lawmakers, Denise Marshall, executive director of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., an advocacy group, said DeVos “manifested an appalling lack of knowledge of educational concepts, the difference between the federal and state statutes that govern education, and basic facts about public education. Specifically, her lack of knowledge of the IDEA is disturbing and offensive to us.”

Marshall said DeVos’ stance, whether due to confusion or ideological belief, “is unacceptable and clearly indicates that Ms. DeVos is unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education.”

In a Feb. 10 letter to DeVos about the IDEA website, two Democratic lawmakers from Washington State, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, said the administration’s failure to keep the “critical resource” available makes it harder for parents, educators and administrators to find the resources they need to implement IDEA “and protect the rights of children with disabilities.”

Murray, a former preschool teacher, is the ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee.

The pair noted that the temporary site “lacks much of the information previously available” on the idea.ed.gov site.

Murray and Cantwell noted that the more detailed site was established years earlier by one-time Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under Republican President George W. Bush, and that federal workers have “consistently updated this website as Congress has enacted new legislation” and courts have interpreted the law.

They even managed to sneak in what could be interpreted as a dig at the new administration, which has several billionaires in its cabinet, including DeVos, whose Michigan family founded a thriving auto parts business: Murray and Cantwell note that students served by IDEA “are exceptionally diverse and reflect the full spectrum of America's students, including those who live in urban or rural settings, those born into billionaire families or barely scraping by, and those who are new to this county and are learning English.”

The pair asked for DeVos’ assurance that the site won’t be stripped down during her tenure, and requested a detailed plan and timeline for when key resources at the site became inaccessible.

"Parents rely on easy access to information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act so they can learn about their child's disability and their civil rights," said Mimi Corcoran, president & CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. "For years, the idea.ed.gov website has served as a trusted and comprehensive resource, and we were surprised to learn that it now redirects parents to a website that provides less information. I would hope we could all agree that giving parents information about their legal rights is of utmost importance and I hope we see idea.ed.gov fully and quickly restored."

On Monday, a message on the site told visitors: “The servers hosting our idea.ed.gov website are experiencing technical issues.” The department said it was working to resolve the issue.