In April  I posted here about Trump’s dismal choice of a Secretary of Education who neither knows nor cares about public schools, and about the troubling connections between her educational agenda and certain responses to Brown v. Board of Education back in the 1950s. While I fumed over Betsy DeVos’s ignorance and indifference, I began to wonder: what does she know and care about? The results of further investigation are not encouraging.
DeVos grew up in Holland, Michigan – a town settled in the middle of the 19th century by Dutch immigrants who left home because they disapproved of the modernizing and liberalizing tendencies then at work in the Dutch Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Their little immigrant church in the United States split again only ten years later, in 1857, when – once more – a small group of dissenters departed from brethren who had become too liberal. These were the founders of the Christian Reformed Church of Betsy DeVos and her family; today, the church’s website explains that the 19th-century break was provoked by the “moral decay and theological liberalism” of the church that was left behind.
Holland has grown into a large, prosperous city but remains in some respects as the early settlers might have wished, still dominated by descendants of the founding families and by their church. Betsy Prince DeVos, who was born into one of those families and married into another, attended Holland Christian (private, religious) schools and graduated from Calvin College. (See Erica Green’s article on DeVos’ education.) Her father, Edgar Prince, built and managed a successful auto parts company, and her brother Erik founded the private security company Blackwater USA, of infamous memory in Iraq (re-branded post-scandal as XE Services in 2009, sold to a hedge fund, and now known as Academi). Most recently, Erik Prince has been urging President Trump to privatize the war in Afghanistan, using an army of mercenaries. The New York Times recently went so far as to publish his self-serving Op-Ed on the matter. (Summary of media outcry at CommonDreams.)
Betsy Prince married Dick DeVos, son of the billionaire Richard DeVos, co-creator of Amway (now known as Alticor). Richard DeVos Sr. has written several books about himself and his opinions, including such notable titles as Compassionate Capitalism and Believe! God, America, Free Enterprise. His memoir, Simply Rich, asserts that success in business and private life arises out of hard work, a positive attitude, and the “greater warmth, surer sense of purpose and meaning, and deeper bond” he finds among Christians of his own persuasion. Amway has been described as a quasi-religious organization and is at least a business steeped in an evangelical ethos – one that has also been described, and more than once investigated, as a pyramid scheme. DeVos seems to perceive no conflict between piety and cutthroat capitalism and to feel no hesitation in publishing a self-satisfied hymn to himself, his family, and his fortune. A similar aura of self-satisfaction, slightly more veiled but equally clueless, surrounds the words and actions of his daughter-in-law.
It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to interpret the behavior and attitudes of the DeVos family without resorting to Max Weber and his best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). I have not thought about Weber since graduate school (and not much then), and I’m aware that he has been challenged, revised, and contradicted, but – very briefly – here’s an attempt to summarize the points that seem to shout “DeVos!” Interested readers should look up Weber and his interpreters – or at the very least, SparkNotes.
Weber argued for a relationship between the rise of capitalism in early modern Europe and what he called “the Protestant ethic” – a particular code of values that he detected in some strains of Calvinism. In place of medieval other-worldly values (poverty and chastity among them), Protestant reformers celebrated worldly “callings”: marriage, family life, and worldly work were recognized as valuable and virtuous. Business, even lending money for profit, became an admirable pursuit. Furthermore, Calvin’s emphasis on predestination – on the action of Providence in choosing some for salvation according to an inscrutable divine plan – left believers anxious for assurance about their chances in the next world. In medieval times, the faithful could rely on “works” such as masses, prayers, and charitable giving to help them to heaven; now they had to look around for assurance, for signs and signals of God’s favor. Worldly success seemed just such a sign: God must have chosen you, and you must be virtuous, if you were doing well. Prosperity and godliness joined hands; the ragged, emaciated Desert Fathers disappeared from religious imagery. Needless to say, this is an extreme oversimplification of Calvin, Calvinism, and Max Weber! But when one examines either Simply Rich or the behavior and attitudes of Betsy DeVos, it’s hard to miss the close association of money – lots of money – and a particular style of Christian piety.
For Calvin and his theological descendants, salvation was also visible in the mission of the church in the world; predestination did not imply passivity. According to its website, the Christian Reformed Church of the DeVos family still is called “to take on the world for Christ – to use Christian schools, institutions, and organizations to make God’s word a reality everywhere.” The church points with pride to the emphasis on education that has distinguished its mission from its founding in 1857 right down to today. Betsy DeVos enthusiastically represents that agenda. She has identified herself specifically as a disciple of Abraham Kuyper, a 19th-century Dutch theologian whose legacy includes this striking quote: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Divine domination – not by some vague deity but by a particularly-defined neo-Calvinist God – is the ground of the Christian Reformed mandate to “extend Christ’s leadership over all . . . to extend God’s kingdom into society.”
When that activist mission is accompanied by the unquestioning confidence that wealthy, successful people must be right as well as righteous, a devastating combination is created. Insularity makes it worse. Betsy DeVos has been sheltered from the cradle from the financial worries of most Americans, and not much exposed to people, ideas, and circumstances outside her own community. It’s not only that she and her family never had to pay off student loans; it’s unlikely that they even knew people with student loans. In a recent display of indifference to the torments experienced by some young borrowers, our Department of Education is attempting to block rules established by the Obama administration to allow students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges and universities to erase their federal loans. On July 6, eighteen state attorneys general filed suit against DeVos and the Department; it remains to be seen whether they will succeed.
DeVos donates enormous amounts of money, time, and energy to causes that are important to her; even her critics recognize that privilege has never kept her from hard work. Religion, politics, and philanthropy have merged seamlessly in her career: she chaired the Michigan Republican Party for several years and served on the boards of the right-wing religious “liberty in education” groups Acton Institute and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She also chaired the Alliance for School Choice – an umbrella organization that incorporates three older entities with similar missions, as stated in the title: choice. To supporters of the Alliance, “choice” means any and all alternatives to traditional public education – religious schools, private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, homeschooling.
Among the many similar organizations with which DeVos has been associated, I single out the Alliance because it was launched on May 17, 2004 – the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. That is surely no coincidence. No one with an interest in education would have been unaware of that date, which was marked across the United States with celebrations of the anniversary along with thoughtful discussions of the meaning and consequences of the decision. (In 2004, two distinguished thinkers on matters of law, race, and education – Derrick Bell and Charles Ogletree – published their reflections on the half-century of change wrought by Brown.)
At first glance the Alliance has no obvious connection to the anniversary, but as I puzzled over the selection of that historic date for its launch, I found a clue in DeVos’s mystifying description of historically black colleges and universities (HCBU) as “pioneers of school choice.” They were founded, of course, precisely because African American students, excluded from so many educational institutions, had no choice. DeVos seems determined to insist that “choice” means what she wants it to mean – anything that is not public education. Her remarks on HBCU were widely ridiculed, and when she spoke at (historically black) Bethune-Cookman University, many of the graduating students turned their backs. None of this had any obvious effect on the Secretary, who seems to accept scorn and ridicule as aspects of the crusader’s lot.
However, if we turn the question around, as is so often necessary in the looking-glass world of 2017, there are connections among issues of race, segregation, and “choice.” In the 1950s, a majority of white Virginians were willing to kill public education entirely rather than follow the Court’s order to desegregate. They did so by abandoning their public schools and creating new institutions for white students with the help of public money in the form of tuition grants and tax credits. I have argued that the mechanisms of “school choice” were created and developed in the wake of Brown, and maybe that’s what the Alliance and its chairwoman celebrated on May 17, 2004. Can the connections really be that simple – and appalling?
The “choice” to which DeVos is committed belongs to a free-market concept of education in which schools compete for students and for the public money that follows them. Schools behave like businesses – indeed, many of them (the for-profit charters) are businesses. Arguing for “choice,” DeVos used the analogy of parents picking a school for their child just as they might pick Uber or Lyft over a taxi, for a better deal; it has been pointed out that public transportation was not assumed to be an option. Michigan, where DeVos has worked for years on behalf of “choice” and vouchers, claims more for-profit charter schools than any other state. Presumably, the Secretary hopes to lead the rest of the country in the same direction.
The guiding principle of “school choice” is that the market will work as it ideally does in free enterprise, driving out “bad” schools and favoring “good” ones. All kinds of schools – including, especially, religious schools – are welcome in the marketplace and supported by public money. The voucher system, in which tax money follows students, is an integral plank in DeVos’s platform. But in fact it is not only failing schools that are driven out, but also “failing” students, “undesirables” whose needs are expensive and who do not reward their schools with high test scores. Charter schools vary widely and there are some fine ones, but they tend to serve affluent communities more successfully than poor ones. They also tend toward racial re-segregation, and without strict regulations governing fair access and accountability, they contribute to inequality.
At her Senate hearing DeVos was willing to say that all schools should be “accountable” but refused to say that they must be equally accountable. When pushed to state whether schools that accept public money could discriminate against certain students, she responded that states had the right to decide. At a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last May, when Rep. Katherine Clark (D, Mass.) asked the Secretary whether a voucher school could discriminate against LGBT students (or even those who come from families where there is “homosexual or bisexual activity”!), DeVos reiterated her belief that such matters belonged to the states. When Clark pushed her on whether schools should be allowed to refuse to admit – for example – African American students, DeVos continued to equivocate by referring even that question to the states. Shades of 1950s Virginia!
Issues of discrimination on racial, sexual, or religious grounds are not, sad to say, hypothetical. In my own home state of Massachusetts, our attorney general recently had to order a charter school to stop punishing African American students for their hairstyles.
Betsy DeVos is frequently in the news; recently, her Department of Education appointed a former dean at for-profit DeVry University to head up the agency responsible for investigating fraud at for-profit colleges. He was appointed even though – or, one wonders, perhaps because? – DeVry was charged by the FTC with misinforming students about their income and employment prospects and forced into a $100 million settlement. As Senator Chris Murphy (D, Conn.) said, it was “akin to nominating influenza to be the Surgeon General.”
The list goes on and on; the DeVos agenda is full and distinct and might better be named a crusade. Consistency and determination can be admirable, but in DeVos they are frightening: she seems set on the destruction of public education.
School children, college students, and young borrowers are already suffering, and they will suffer much more if the disastrous Trump/DeVos budget goes through. I note that the budget, announced on May 23, 2017, was leaked to the press on May 17th – another anniversary of Brown. Thanks in part to the strategy and tactics developed in the cause of educational segregation, we are likely to see a new generation of youthful victims of the problematic concept of “choice” as it exists within the narrow vision and missionary zeal of the Secretary of Education.