Judge rules DeVos held up Obama-era decision on special education
WASHINGTON – A federal judge has ruled that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos illegally delayed an Obama-era rule that required states to address racial disparities in special education programs.
In a decision Thursday, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia called the Education Department’s delay of the special education rule “arbitrary and capricious.” The rule, drafted under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, would require states to identify districts with “significant disproportionality” in the number of minority students channeled into special education services, segregated in restrictive classroom settings or disciplined.
The rule, passed in the final weeks of the Obama administration, required districts to examine policies and practices that contributed to the disparities and fund remedies.
The judge’s ruling vacates DeVos’ decision to put off the regulation by two years. Instead it will take effect immediately. Leaders in the Education Department said last summer that they needed time to study the rule’s potential consequences because they were concerned that it could promote unconstitutional “racial quotas.”
Civil rights groups hailed the ruling as a victory over one of the most significant policy moves DeVos has made to date. While the department has rescinded nonbinding guidance documents, which championed Obama-era practices for addressing racial bias, the special education rule is binding, and states had been preparing to enforce it for more than a year.
Denise Marshall, executive director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, an advocacy organization that sued the department over the delay last year, said the decision “assures states will be required to help their districts who have historically discriminated against children” by offering them services rather than suspensions.
“The court has sided with the children whom the department had deemed unimportant through its actions,” Marshall said.
Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the agency was reviewing the ruling and exploring its options.
DeVos delayed the rule after a public comment period in which the overwhelming majority of more than 300 commenters expressed concern that discriminatory practices were denying black and Hispanic students a proper education in a traditional classroom setting and pushing them out of school to lives on the margins of society or in prison.
The department largely sided with the rule’s opponents who believed that large disparities were not evidence enough of discrimination in classrooms and could be a result of other factors such as districts’ capacity to train teachers in properly identifying and disciplining students with disabilities.
It also argued that the rule could have unintended consequences for those same children if districts felt pressure to meet “racial quotas” to avoid being found in violation of the rule.
“The secretary is concerned that the regulations will create an environment where children in need of special education and related services do not receive those services because of the color of their skin,” the department wrote.
But Chutkan wrote in her ruling that the department’s concern over racial quotas “did not have adequate support in the rule-making record.”
She wrote that the department failed to show how the safeguards in the Obama-era rule, which expressly prohibited racial quotas, were insufficient.
She also found that the department violated the law that governs the promulgation of regulations by failing to provide a “reasoned explanation” for delaying the rule and failed to “account for the costs to children, their parents and society.”
Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a vocal critic of delaying the rule, said it was “troubling that the department delayed this critical rule without fulfilling its legal responsibility to provide a rational justification.”
“By forcing the Trump administration to implement the rule, the court’s ruling will put us back on a track toward reversing systemic racial discrimination in education,” Scott said in a statement.