Please welcome an additional post today from guest writer Josh Boerman. Josh graduated from Calvin College with a major in political science and a minor in theatre. He currently is working as a theatrical director and designer in New York.
Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education last week went roughly as expected. Senate Democrats took advantage of their brief allocated question time to expose her lack of knowledge on topics such as student loan debt, enforcing federal disability laws, and the difference between evaluating schools by growth versus proficiency. In the most memorable and bizarre exchange, DeVos refused to commit to gun-free school policies, citing the state of Wyoming’s need to protect schoolchildren against bear attacks.
On the Republican side, things were similarly predictable. Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy led the charge with a stream of anodyne softballs such as “Do you believe that all children deserve to have the opportunity to receive quality education?” meeting with repeated single-worded assent from the permanently smiley-faced nominee. DeVos repeatedly stated that she would support the agenda of the president-elect, laying out a vision for the future of education in America that pits private, public, and charter schools against each other in competition for students, teachers, and funds.
Above all else, we heard about opportunity. Parents should have the opportunity to choose which schools will best suit the needs of their children. Children should have the opportunity to grow up in an environment where they can excel. It’s hard to argue with this rhetoric—who could possibly be opposed to everyone having the chance to succeed?
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Of all people, I should probably be among the most on board with the DeVos vision for education. From kindergarten through 12th grade, I went to the Grand Rapids Christian Schools, culminating in a diploma from Grand Rapids Christian High School. For the uninitiated, GRCS is a private school system that charges a minimum tuition ranging from $7,445 for 1st grade through $9,445 for 12th grade. By any conventional metric, GRCS is a successful system—its high school athletic teams are frequent state-level contenders, it boasts a 94% college placement rate, and it offers well-appointed extracurricular programs in everything from applied technology to live theatre.
The student body of GRCS is largely composed of the children of Grand Rapids’ middle to upper-middle professional class. I went to school with the children of architects, lawyers, doctors, and middle managers. The high school is largely ethnically homogenous, around 80% white, with a significant Asian population (largely Korean expats) and black population (many of whom are supported by church-funded need-based scholarships).
The school is also a shrine to the largesse of the DeVos family. The DeVos Center for Arts and Worship, the 1206-seat venue which hosts, among other things, the high school’s theatrical productions and weekly chapel, was made possible by a $20 million capital campaign led by family patriarch and matriarch Richard and Helen DeVos. An antique red car sits in the front lobby near the box office, festooned with a plaque praising the value of hard work and noting that it’s the car Rich used when he was getting Amway up and running with co-founder Jay Van Andel. It’s weird.
The apple, unsurprisingly, doesn’t fall far from the tree. According to a Mother Jones report, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation donated an additional $2.4 million to the Grand Rapids Christian Schools from 1999–2014, along with bequests to other Christian schools in the area totaling a whopping $8.6 million.
These funds have been crucial in enabling GRCS to continue to expand and renovate, even in the face of decades-long budget deficits and shrinking enrollment. For the high school, this has meant the creation of the aforementioned auditorium, a brand new football stadium, a gigantic new gymnasium, and a gut renovation of every single classroom, all over the course of the past decade and a half.
As a student of this system, I was a direct benefactor of DeVos money. I received an excellent education. I threw myself into the theatre and competitive speech programs, both among the best in West Michigan. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without going through GRCS, as no public school in the area offers a comparable education in the specializations that interested me.
At risk of sounding like I’m about to bite the hand that fed me, I state this all up front because I want to be as transparent as possible. After all, I was schooled in the exact type of education Betsy DeVos would ostensibly like all Americans to have—one steeped in a specific ideology and loaded with immense amounts of opportunity.
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If you exit right from Grand Rapids Christian High School onto Plymouth Street, make a left on Burton, and drive two more blocks, you’ll come upon Ottawa Hills High School, the public high school which serves the southeast side of Grand Rapids.
At Ottawa Hills, students of racial and ethnic minorities constitute 92% of the student body. 78% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. While GR Christian boasts an average ACT score of 24 (of a possible 36), Ottawa Hills scored an average of 16 in the 2014 assessment. 29% of students meet proficiency standards for reading; a mere 3% meet the standard for mathematics. Just over half of students manage to graduate at all.
Like many inner city public high schools, Ottawa Hills is hamstrung by multiple pressures, doing its best to educate its low-performing students while facing extreme scrutiny. Indeed, after the school was put on the priority list for improvement by the state of Michigan in 2013, it was required to lay off half its teachers, leaving a whopping 13 long-term substitute teachers in place at the start of the 2014–15 school season.
When a school in this situation is presented as a fully qualified competitor on an equal playing surface with its peers, sending one’s children to a school like GRCHS instead is the rational, clear-cut choice. It’s a seductive framing, one that lines up perfectly with the schooling philosophy endorsed by the Acton Institute, the DeVos family’s personal think tank:
Competition will lead to the improvement of all schools, as each school will seek to increase its effectiveness, innovation, and additional services in order to attract more students. Accountability will be achieved through families rewarding a superior school by sending their children there. Schools currently run under the new government monopoly have little accountability to the public since they are assured funding regardless of performance.
“Assured funding regardless of performance” is an interesting turn of phrase, though, as that’s a perfect descriptor of the schools that Betsy DeVos and her family have propped up over the years. By pumping millions into Michigan’s political system through direct contributions and PACs, the DeVos family has successfully secured some of the greatest funding levels and lowest accountability standards for charter schools in the entire country. In Detroit, which contains 79% of the state’s charters, the average charter school performs little better than the average public school, even as many of these charters return substantial monetary profits to their shareholders—a state of affairs that the Free Press decried as “a second, privately managed failing system.”
Meanwhile, on the west side of the state, private schools like Grand Rapids Christian can count on regular multimillion dollar contributions to continue to enhance their endowments and physical facilities, all while enrolling top-tier students from privileged backgrounds and paying their teachers less than corresponding public educators’ prevailing wage.
Turns out that up close, the DeVos promise of opportunity for all suddenly looks considerably less pristine.
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So if it’s not just about opportunity, what is it all about? For starters, one cannot fully understand the Betsy DeVos educational philosophy without an understanding of the environment she grew up in. Raised in the Christian Reformed Church, DeVos is an alumnus of CRC flagship institution Calvin College (also my alma mater), a school named for the mid-16th century protestant reformer John Calvin. John Calvin is probably best known for his period of theological de facto rule in Geneva, Switzerland, where he utilized the levers of power to consolidate his influence, expel heretics, and in one notable case burn a guy at the stake.
A key component of Calvinism is the doctrine of predestination, which holds that every single person whose eternal soul has been or will be saved by Jesus Christ is part of a so-called “elect.” God determines this elect well ahead of time, so humans don’t have the ability to move into or out of elect status—in other words, our ultimate fates are predestined.
Along with predestination, a major focus of Calvinism is God’s absolute sovereignty over all things in this world. While sin may temporarily prevail in some areas, the ultimate task of the Christian is to work to redeem “every square inch” of the earth for the glory of God’s kingdom. (To drive the point home, Calvin’s monthly newsletter from the president is called This Square Inch, and you can even sponsor a square inch or ten of the campus as a contribution to the school’s annual fund.)
Between predestination and absolute sovereignty, you’ve got a potential recipe for some pretty serious missionary zeal. This ideological fervor is evident not only in Betsy DeVos’s approach to school choice, but also in her brother Erik’s ongoing mercenary work with private military contractors like Blackwater, as well as her mother Elsa’s crusade against gay marriage.
And things just get weirder once these fundamentals couple with a die-hard Austrian economics-style belief in free markets as a positive moral agent, leaving you with disjointed, circular ramblings like this, again from the Acton Institute:
HUMAN ACTION — Human persons are by nature acting persons. Through human action, the person can actualize his potentiality by freely choosing the moral goods that fulfill his nature.
SIN — Although human beings in their created nature are good, in their current state, they are fallen and corrupted by sin. The reality of sin makes the state necessary to restrain evil. The ubiquity of sin, however, requires that the state be limited in its power and jurisdiction. The persistent reality of sin requires that we be skeptical of all utopian “solutions” to social ills such as poverty and injustice.
This philosophy recalls the Pentecostal-influenced prosperity gospel, which holds that devoted, faithful Christians who give their money to God will see a proportional increase in their own physical wealth—with one key difference. Unlike followers of the prosperity gospel, Calvinist capitalists don’t wait for money to come to them. Instead, they take their resources to market, steadily growing their wealth and influence until every square inch is owned for God.
Take, for instance, the 1997 Roll Call op-ed in which DeVos cavalierly stated, “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues.”
Or even more to the point, consider Proposal 1 in Michigan’s 2000 election, a DeVos-backed ballot initiative which would have created state-subsidized tuition vouchers that could be redeemed at religious schools. After it crashed and burned, with 69% of voters saying no, Betsy DeVos made the proposal’s objective explicit in a closed 2001 meeting with fellow wealthy evangelical Christians: “greater Kingdom gain.”
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Markets, even those oriented toward “Kingdom gain,” create winners and losers, and the DeVos vision, wittingly or otherwise, serves primarily to reinforce this status quo. The GOP-driven charter system in Michigan has failed to make substantial headway against the extremely poor educational outcomes there, but it has been tremendously successful in generating profit for private shareholders, with one charter operator, National Heritage Academies, reporting $245 million in statewide revenue in 2013.
Meanwhile, children with serious physical, mental, and learning disabilities—those most in need of the sort of special care and attention that “school choice” purports to provide—have found themselves locked out of the very same schools thanks to inconsistent application of disability rights laws. (It’s no coincidence that during her hearing, Betsy DeVos refused to commit to enforcing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal statute requiring all schools receiving federal funding to accommodate students with disabilities).
Regardless of whether DeVos is confirmed as Secretary of Education (which at this point looks likely, albeit not the foregone conclusion it seemed to be before last week’s hearing), the next four years look to be daunting ones for the future of public education. We know what the road map looks like because Republicans have tried this already, pushing in 2014 for federal block grants that would be vouchered out by states to charter and private schools.
The ultimate failure of such market-based school reform proposals is that of imagination: they consider quality education a limited resource to be allocated to the worthiest consumers, rather than an objective ideal that ought to propel us all forward. Thus in response, the left must fervently advance quality public education as a fundamental guarantee for all Americans regardless of background or circumstance, rather than a privilege to be bestowed upon those students and parents with the means and knowledge to best navigate a marketplace.
Furthermore, we must firmly reject the conservative framing of public education that links it inextricably to failure. Despite the right’s ongoing attempts to demonize the faculty, administration, and students of public schools, the hundreds of millions of Americans who graduated from these schools still constitute the substantial majority, and nobody likes being labeled a failure.
We have natural allies in this fight. Teachers’ unions, which were instrumental in defeating voucher ballot initiatives in both Michigan and California in 2000, have demonstrated a propensity toward successful direct action that few other unions have been able to match—witness the successful 2012 Chicago strike, which curbed contract provisions that could have opened the door to the partial privatization of that system under mayor Rahm Emanuel. While the American public’s trust in unions as an institution is falling, its trust in its educators remains steadfast; the potential here for a united front is unparalleled.
The timing has never been more important. Ours is an era of historically massive income inequality; the DeVos plan for the future of American education would serve to further exacerbate the situation. But public education has the unique potential to address and eventually close the gap.
So indeed it must.
Josh graduated from Calvin College with a major in political science and a minor in theatre. He currently is working as a theatrical director and designer in New York.