Generally, when education secretary Betsy DeVos makes a public appearance, you get a rehash of the same old talking points. But put her in front of a friendly, like-minded audience, and she may just let her hair down and let 'er rip, giving us all a clearer picture of what she's really got going on upstairs.
That just happened this week as DeVos made an appearance at Hillsdale College. Hillsdale College, a super-conservative, uber-Christianish, Euro-centric college in Michigan, known for its strong resistance to federal anything and special treatment for any non-white non-traditional folks. They love Jesus and the free market with notable zeal. They have ties to both the Macinac Center and the Heartland Institute. They have a Charter School Initiative with a whole raft of charter schools (mostly "classical"), and a teacher prep program. In short, these are Betsy DeVos's people.
DeVos's prepared remarks open with nods to Hillsdale's history of awesomeness, with special attention to how smart they've been to avoid getting help from the feds. And that lets her pivot to her current fave point--that the Covid crisis has "laid bare" all the Bad Stuff of US public education.
"Sadly," she continues, "too many politicians heed the shrill voices of the education lobby and ignore the voices of children, parents, teachers and health experts who are begging to get our students back to learning." Not Betsy-- she's a fighter, fighting for students and parents and against anyone who wants the government to be "parents to everyone."
Now she pivots to world history, and a chapter that is actually new--and revealing.
DeVos wants to talk about a guy long associated with her beliefs, named Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was a 19th century Dutch theologian/politician who also founded his own newspaper. He was a staunch opponent of modernism in theology, aka the idea that the interpretation of scripture should take modern science, knowledge and ideas into account. He's the granddaddy of Dutch Reformed Church. In the Netherlands, he put together a Christian political party, and pushed the idea of "common grace," the idea that Christian faith should permeate every aspect of daily life. The State, he asserted, must take into account the Bible. Christ should be the Lord over nations, not just the church. And the government should not discriminate between funding secular institutions and religious ones. I am seriously short-handing the work of a guy who was an extraordinarily prodigious writer, but you see why DeVos is a fan.
DeVos, like others, sees Kuyper as a guy who stood up to those modern ideas that came out of the French Revolution (sometimes we call them the Enlightenment). There's some debate about whether or not we can lump Kuyper in with the Dominionists, the folks who think Christians are supposed to take charge of society's institutions until Christ returns, but here's what DeVos says to the Hillsdale crowd:Kuyper asserted that the way forward was to separate education from partisan politics. He said that “the family, the business, science, art, and so forth are all social spheres which do not owe their existence to the state and which do not derive the law of their life from the state.” And so, Kuyper argued, “the state cannot intrude [into these spheres] and has nothing to command in their domain.”
The family, says DeVos, should be embraced as the "sovereign sphere," the font of all institutions, government, art. athletics, business, science, education, music, and generally all culture. This strikes me as an argument that's much more appealing if your family is a bunch of billionaires. For DeVos, the Founders said "we the people" govern because "we know what's best for ourselves, and for our children." What are we to make of the fact that the Founders thought "we the people" meant white land-owning makes? DeVos isn't going there. Instead
Our schools exist because we pay for them. So, we should be empowered to spend our education dollars our way on our kids.
There are a couple of points to address here, but I want to underline something important here. Arguing the various aspects of school choice with folks in the DeVosian camp can be frustrating, like trying to nail jello to the wall, because their arguments shift and change. There's a fundamental inconsistency to many of their points (like, say, a woman who admires a 19th century guy who opposed "modern ideas," but who criticizes schools for using a 100-year-old model). That's because there's really only one reason they believe school choice is right--because they believe it is. Whether or not choice schools would be better at educating or provide more equity or higher test scores--all of that is beside the point. I suspect that DeVos and her crew feel like the folks who say, "I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people," only for them it's "I don't know how to explain to you that tax dollars should fund religious schools as directed by families, and if you are one of those secular humanist government types, I don't really want to."
In DeVos's statement, those personal pronouns are doing a lot of work-- especially the "our education dollars" part. Because the tax dollars that have been collected from citizens do not belong to the parents of school age children. Calling those tax dollars parent dollars slides us past one of the inherent problems of school choice. Imagine if, instead of having the government do it for them, parents had to knock on the doors of their neighbors to collect "their" education dollars. Here's Betsy DeVos knocking on the door of that nice gay married couple up the street: "Pardon me, but I'd like you to contribute several hundred dollars so that I can send my child to a school to learn that you and your spouse are going to burn in hell for eternity."
Next she brings a little joy to Jeanne Allen's world by stealing Allen's favorite image. "I like to picture kids with their backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn."
Now she's jumping to cost, citing $739 billion for US taxpayers. That's $15K per student, and she inserts this whopper:
Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: “I could educate my child for 15 thousand dollars per year!”
Nope. Certainly not if you're a parent of a child with special needs. Not if you intend to send them to an upscale private school. And we're not just talking about school tuition--consider all the add-ons like uniforms, transportation, in some cases lunch, plus any other extra treats.
DeVos cites a survey from RealClear Opinion; she neglects to mention that the survey was sponsored by her pro-choice charity,
American Federation for Children, and nothing I could find indicates how the respondents were selected. But DeVos waves these results as proof of choice's inevitability. And DeVos says she's just getting started. She's spent half her life on this: "More than 30 years of time and treasure devoted to giving all kids the same opportunities my own kids had."
Well, again, no. There's very little she could do to provide other children the opportunities available to the children of billionaire heirs and heiresses, though of course paying taxes (rather than sheltering assets
) wouldn't hurt. Or demanding that her local school district boundaries be redrawn to better mix wealthy and not-so-wealthy families. But none of that is what she means by "opportunities." She means something more along the lines of the opportunity to be shielded from the government and instead attend a properly Godly school.
And here's the other thing. Private schools, homeschooling--that's always been available. Parents are free to choose--what we're really talking about is having other taxpayers pay for it, like saying "I think I should have private security for my home, and I think the Army should provide it."
She says she's been working to "reform" education since soon after President Carter "bent to the demands of big union bosses" and created the Department of Education. A department she will now proceed to disparage.
If you haven't been inside, you "haven't missed much." She's seen what the department focuses on, and "let me tell you, it's not on students." Rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting the system. And I'm not one to exalt the wonders of bureaucratic systems, but this is a point that DeVos seems incapable of understanding--not every family is led by caring billionaires who can protect their children from anything and everything. And no, the free market won't look out for all those children, either. But even now, as we face an unprecedented threat of disease, DeVos insists that providing leadership, guidance or even data to meet that challenge is not her problem
. It's a reminder that another way to say, "Families, you are free to choose whatever" is "Families, we wash our hand of you. You are on your own."
And now, having rejected and slammed the system, DeVos will cite evidence from the system--the NAEP test results, results that she has misrepresented before
and so she now simply says that two third's of US students "can't read like they should," which means nothing.
She throws in an unsourced unsubstantiated but touching story about an illiterate child, notes that prisons are full of illiterate folks, and then she does something that is, actually, unusual for Betsy DeVos-- she mixes in some usual baloney with some flat-out lies.
She says that she's been trying to put herself out of a job from Day One (probably true). So they "restored state, local and family control of education by faithfully implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act" (okay, it's highly debatable that ESSA does that), by ending Common Core (nope, that's just a lie--there's not even some twisted means by which she could honestly believe that's true), and by "urging" Congress to combine K-12 programs into one grant ("urging" is not doing). They expanded vouchers in DC. They "supported" the creation of more charter schools (by using the same faulty grant program
that has been used for years). They "joined" the pro-choice folks backing Espinoza v. Montana (thoughts and prayers). And she is still trying to find a way to shoot some pandemic relief money to private schools.
She'll plug Tim Scott's School Choice Now shtick
, the slightly mutated version of her Education Freedom scholarship tax credit scheme that has failed to fly for four years. She ties it to Scott, though it's co-sponsored by Lamar Alexander, but Scott's rags to riches story provides better optics than Alexander's riches-to-more-riches story
. More freedom, choices and funds, says Betsy
The “Washington knows best” crowd really loses their minds over that. They seem to think that the people’s money doesn’t belong to the people. That it instead belongs to “the public,” or rather, what they really mean—government.
Two issues here. One is that it's not Washington, but your local elected-from-among-the-taxpayers school board that gets cut off at the knees by choice programs. The other is, again, the issue of whose money. Because it does in fact belong to "the public." It was collected from them for the express purpose of providing an education for everyone--a task that no choice system attempts to undertake. She is upset at the immorality of a government that says, "all yours is mine," but she does not propose an actual alternative. In the DeVosian universe, parents who want to send their kids to exclusive private religious schools still get to tell their neighbors, "I'm having the government collect money from you so that Junior can go to Straight White Academy."
This is in addition to the same old never-addressed choice problem which is the disenfranchisement of childless taxpayers. Don't have a kid in school? Then you get no voice at all in how public tax dollars for education are spent.
But let's move on, because DeVos would now like to attack Kids These Days.
Too many today—especially among our rising generation—don’t seem to understand the dangers of such a view. They somehow have come to believe that socialism is the cure, not the deadly disease it really is.
Tragically, it’s because no one has taught them differently. And worse, some have been indoctrinated to believe not in themselves, but in government.
Yup, it's entirely the teachers and schools, and not, say, the visible, palpable and painful ways that market based ideology has failed an entire generation. History shows us the best way to beat back socialism within this country--a robust demonstration, shared by all citizens, of the power and rewards of market capitalism. But no-- definitely socialist indoctrinators in the classroom (because teachers have so much time for that
And that's not all that schools can be blamed for: "America’s cities ablaze today witness a failure to teach the things that make the American experiment work."
And now, DeVos is going to go Full Trump-- They're coming for you!!
So, the unholy mob thinks our economies need redistributing. It thinks our Constitution needs rewriting. It thinks our families need restructuring. One prominent group was explicit about its desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.”
That’s taken right from the old Marxist playbook. It admits the goal is to “[do] away with private property and [educate] children on a communal basis, and in this way [remove] the two bases of traditional marriage.”
Even Marxists know the family is it. The family is at the center of our economy, of education, of culture—and it’s under attack today.
Damn that unholy mob. She also invokes the evil attacks on Amy Coney Barrett's "big" family. Because family family family family. Which, you know, would mean more perhaps if the US weren't among the worst countries in the world for family leave
to take care of newborns and this administration weren't trying hard to shred the safety net for struggling families. But the attempt to invoke the sanctity of the family loses much of its power when it is not attached to any attempts to actually help families through any means other than insuring that they have the "freedom" to sink or swim and their needs are always subordinate to the needs of business and corporations (why have they lost their faith in the free market, again?)
But DeVos-channeling-Trump is still on a tear. Conservatives are under attack everywhere in the social medias places thingies. Cancel culture! Censorship! Those who talk "tolerance" are so intolerant! And "this environment makes it harder to protect principle."
But protect them we must! Kuyper said "arrows do not exist simply to be kept in the quiver" and DeVos says not to shrink from that metaphor. "Moms know what I mean. We know what to do with an arrow when our family is under attack." Which I guess is the DeVosian 19th century version of a Trumpian call to go mess up our opponents.
[Update: Adam Laats
points out there's another layer here.
It's WAY worse than [that]. It is about using women as "quivers" to birth new champions for Christ.
So, says DeVos, let's challenge the culture--with education. "Because we don't believe in retreat. We believe in redemption." Boy, I would love to sit down with her and try to unpack that. Before we can redeem people, we have to kick their asses? This mix of violent get-out-the-arrows confrontation with redemption language is--well, I was raised Methodist, and I don't recognize this language. And then:Let’s begin by reasserting this fundamental truth: the family is the “first school.” If we recognize that, then we must also reorder everything about education around what the family wants and what the family needs.
Let's please not stop with education. Let's reorganize health care and health insurance around what families need and want. Let's reorganize business and the economy around what they need and want. Let's rewrite some of the rules so that families can share in the nation's prosperity instead of hanging on for dear life on the bottom end of the biggest income/wealth gap in the history of civilization. And, by the way, let's talk about "families" instead of "the family," thereby recognizing the many rich and varied forms that family takes in this country.
Don't check out yet. If you needed one more clear statement about what DeVos wants, she's using it for her wrap up:
We are families. Education is our sovereign sphere and we are taking it back!
"Sovereign sphere" is Kuyper, and it refers to the idea that some spheres of society should be free of government involvement. The refrain is also familiar in conservative Christian circles with the idea that schools need to be "taken back" from the government. Everything else DeVos says about education is window dressing and attempts to win the argument; at heart, that's the simple goal.