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Mother Jones on Betsy DeVos’ Sheltered Background (and More)

February 9, 2017

In January 2017, Mother Jones originally published an article entitled, “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to ‘Build God’s Kingdom.'” It has since been updated.

I did not read the original article; however, I am intrigued by the details I read today on US Ed Sec Betsy DeVos’ sheltered and privileged background, a background that decidedly contradicts her fitness as overseer of the nation’s public schools.

Thus, I offer my readers excerpts from what is an extensive article.

Here we go:

More than 150 years ago, Dutch immigrants from a conservative Protestant sect chose western Michigan as the setting for this idealized replica of Holland, in part because of its isolation. They wanted to keep American influences away from their orthodox community. … If city officials decide that a fence or a shed signals decay, they can tear it down and mail the owner a bill. Grass clippings longer than eight inches have to be removed and composted, and snow must be shoveled soon after it lands on the streets. … It’s also where President Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos, grew up. …

Most people I meet in Holland tell me that it’s hard to understand the DeVos and Prince families without learning about the history of Dutch Americans in western Michigan. In the mid-1800s, a group of mostly poor farmers known as the “Seceders” rebelled against the Dutch government when it tried to modernize the state Calvinist church, including by changing the songbooks used during worship and ending discriminatory laws against Catholics and Jews. In 1846, an intensely devout Calvinist clergyman named A.C. van Raalte led several hundred settlers from the Netherlands to the United States.

In the city of Holland, [Michigan], they re-created their Dutch villages. And just like back home, their church was essentially their government, influencing almost every part of farmers’ lives.

Eleven years after the first Seceders came to Holland, one-third of the Dutch community broke off from the Reformed Church in America and created the Christian Reformed Church. What really solidified this split were disagreements over education…. Members who stayed in the Reformed Church in America supported public schools; Christian Reformed Church members believed education was solely the responsibility of families—and explicitly not the government—­and sent their kids to religious schools. Many church members became staunch opponents of unions by the time New Deal-era legislation protected the right to strike and allowed for collective bargaining, which they viewed as socialist intrusions that diminished the authority of the church and contributed to bigger government.

Along with opening Holland Christian Schools, the church and its faithful established Calvin College in nearby Grand Rapids. Betsy DeVos, 59, is an alum of both and was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in the Christian Reformed tradition. … During those years, that often meant growing up in a home that forbade dancing, movies, drinking, working on Sundays, or even participating in the city’s May tulip festival. …

When the 1960s cultural revolution rocked the nation, many members of the Christian Reformed Church… allied themselves with the evangelical movement. …

Meanwhile, the DeVos clan is perhaps best known for hard-nosed political activism against organized labor. In 2007, coming off Dick DeVos’ unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in their home state of Michigan, the DeVoses focused their advocacy and philanthropy on controversial right-to-work legislation…. Back in 2007, such a proposal in a union-heavy state like Michigan was considered a “right-wing fantasy,” but thanks to the DeVoses’ funding and insider knowledge—Betsy was once the state GOP chair—the bill became law by 2012.

Right-to-work laws… have been a major blow to the labor movement…. But that hasn’t kept Betsy DeVos from trying to further weaken unions. In January 2016, when Detroit educators demanded a forensic audit of their district’s murky finances and protested classrooms plagued by mold, roaches, and rodents, they used sick days to make their point…. …DeVos wrote a Detroit News op-ed arguing that teachers shouldn’t be allowed to stage sick-outs, either.

Which brings us back to the blurring lines among “school choice,” charter schools, and vouchers. Betsy DeVos has spent at least two decades pushing taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools to the center of the Republican Party’s education agenda, thanks in large part to Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

In the mid-’90s, Mackinac leadership suggested a long-term strategy on how to make unpopular voucher policies more palatable for mainstream America. Its then-senior vice president, Joseph Overton, developed what became known as the Overton Window, a theory of how a policy that’s initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion. …

Charter schools, then, became a Trojan horse for voucher advocates: Once public school supporters got used to the idea of charters, activists would attempt to nudge public opinion closer to supporting tax credits to pay for private schools. … [Former] Detroit Metro Times reporter Curt Guyette showed how the Prince Foundation, as well as the foundation run by Dick DeVos’ parents, funded a carefully orchestrated campaign to label Detroit’s public schools as failing—and pushed for charters and “universal educational choice” as a better alternative. Betsy DeVos has since written about the need to “retire” and “replace” Detroit’s public school system and pressed for expanding charter schools and vouchers. …

In the two decades since school choice was implemented in Michigan, white student enrollment in Holland’s public schools has plummeted 60 percent, with a nearby charter school becoming their top destination, according to an investigation by the Ann Arbor-based Bridge Magazine. Latino students are now the face of the system, and 70 percent of all its students are poor, more than double the district’s poverty rate when school choice began. Bridge Magazine found a similar pattern across Michigan: White parents tended to use the choice system to move their kids into even whiter districts, while black parents gravitated to charter schools made up mostly of students of color. Meanwhile, the Holland Christian Schools are predominantly white. …

On my last day in Holland, a retired public school teacher named Cathy Boote gives me a tour of the city she has called home for 37 years. …

We leave downtown and drive along Lake Macatawa for about three miles before parking in front of a huge, castlelike mansion. This is Betsy and Dick DeVos’ summer home—a three-story, 22,000-square-foot estate that has eight dishwashers, 10 bathrooms, and 13 porches. …

DeVos went on to attend a small, elite, mostly white private religious school and a college with similar demographics. She married into a rich dynasty. …

[Boote says,] “If you come from the small, sheltered, privileged environment of Holland, you are most likely going to have a very limited worldview—including how to fix education.”

In her February 08, 2017, speech to US Department of Education (USDOE) employees, DeVos avoided saying the term “vouchers”; however, DeVos’ voucher intentions were undeniably interwoven in her carefully chosen words. Moreover, in what came across as a distraction tactic to redirect listeners from focusing on her profound lack of qualification in overseeing public schools, DeVos projected herself as more of a “listener” and as one who has an “open door policy.” Nevertheless, as the Mother Jones article aptly illustrates, DeVos’ personal and political backgrounds simply do not support anything but a clearly-determined privatization agenda born of a narrow world view coupled with a fiscally-enabled arrogance.

DeVos paints herself as a listener; however, her history screams her unfitness to lead a federal education agency and her established bias against public schools.

(For more Betsy DeVos background, see this 2011 Vero Beach News feature on part-time Florida resident DeVos.)

betsy-devos-14  Betsy DeVos


Released July 2016– Book Three:

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of both A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

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