Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency left education policy experts at a complete loss to explain what this would mean for the nation’s schools. During his campaign, Trump gave few clues about what would inform his education leadership, only that he had some antipathy for the Department of Education, he was no fan of Common Core and he would advocate for more “school choice.”
After his election, experienced education journalists at Education Week predicted Trump would embrace conservative Beltway think tanks and state education policy leaders who had bristled under the rule of Obama’s education department, and would reject the influence of teachers unions, civil rights groups, and politically centrist education “reform” groups.
Many who pointed out “personnel is policy,” speculated Trump would pick an education secretary from the ranks of his transition advisers who came mostly from the above-mentioned DC-based circles and state government centers. Other knowledgeable sources predicted Trump might draw education policy knowhow from “outsider” sources, such as the military, big business or the charter school industry.
Not a single source I can find anticipated Trump would look for education expertise in the deep, dark well he repeatedly seems to draw from: the extremist, right-wing evangelical community.
The DeVos nomination
The first clue that Trump would embed the extremist views of radical Christian orthodoxy in the White House’s education policy apparatus was his nomination of Betsy DeVos to be the nation’s next Secretary of Education.
As Politico reports, DeVos is a “billionaire philanthropist” who “once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to ‘advance God’s Kingdom.'”
Politico reporters point to numerous recordings and interviews in which DeVos and her husband Dick, a billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, promote education policies as avenues to “greater Kingdom gain … lament that public schools have ‘displaced’ the Church as the center of communities," and refer to their efforts to advance private, religious schools as a "Shephelah," an area where battles, including between David and Goliath, were fought in the Old Testament.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Katherine Stewart, an expert observer of the Christian right, writes, “Betsy DeVos stands at the intersection of two family fortunes that helped to build the Christian right.”
Stewart points to numerous examples of DeVos-related family foundations that have generously donated to “conservative groups” pushing religious right doctrine including, the Alliance Defending Freedom,” the legal juggernaut of the religious right,” and “Colorado-based Christian ministry Focus on the Family.”
But Trump’s selection of DeVos for education secretary is not the only clue that the nation’s education policy may be in for a sharp veer to the religious right. As Stewart reports, “The president-elect’s first move on public education [was] Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the nation … Liberty University teaches creationism alongside evolution.”
Falwell Jr. came first
The Associated Press was first to break the story about Falwell Jr. being offered the job, reporting also that he declined it saying, “He couldn’t afford to work at a Cabinet-level job for longer than [two years] and didn’t want to move his family, especially his 16-year-old daughter.”
“Here is Trump, ready to hand the job [of Secretary of Education] to a religious zealot whose sole goal,” writes Michelangelo Signorile, the Gays and Lesbians editor for the Huffington Post, “would likely be to infuse evangelical Christian doctrine into public schools.”
Signorile also calls Falwell Jr. an “enemy of LGBTQ rights” and states, “It’s hard to believe Falwell would continue the Obama administration’s pro-LGBTQ programs if he actually became Secretary of Education, nor would he likely take the job with any stipulation that he must so.”
Need more evidence that Trump will usher in an education agenda largely dominated by the evangelical community? Another candidate Trump also considered for education secretary was Larry Arnn.
The Hillsdale College connection
Hillsdale College, located in Hillsdale, Michigan (the Devos family’s home state), is regarded as “the conservative Harvard,” in some circles, and has been the recipient of generous donations from numerous funders of the rightwing conservative movement including the Koch brothers' family foundation. Hillsdale also sponsors the Rush Limbaugh Show.
According to an article in The Atlantic, Hillsdale is one among a number of conservative private colleges that rejects federal funds including financial aid for students. Many of these colleges, while they are rejecting federal funds, “are seeking, exemptions from the US Department of Education from provisions under Title IX of the laws governing higher education, which protects students from discrimination in housing, athletics, and access to facilities on the basis of such things as gender, sexual orientation, sex or pregnancy outside marriage, or having an abortion.”
Hillsdale has a long-held reputation for discriminating on the basis of gender preference and identity, and news outlets in the LGBT community have reported incidents in which Hillsdale staff and officials openly discriminated against gay students.
Arnn also came under fire from many liberal sources for describing nonwhite students as "dark ones" during a state legislature subcommittee hearing regarding the adoption of Common Core State Standards. Hillsdale’s official apology for that incident was arguably worse than Arnn’s remark, a Michigan blogger notes, as the college used its apology as another opportunity to take a swipe at government enforcement of affirmative action policies.
In addition to Hillsdale’s strong resentment of federal intrusion, especially on issues of civil rights, the college also has deep commitments to another favorite of conservative, religious advocates: charter schools.
A chain of religion-based charter schools
As I report in an in-depth investigation of the conservative movement’s influence on charter school expansions in Colorado, in addition to reinforcing gender and race inequity, Hillsdale operates the Barney Charter School Initiative, which is essentially a consultant service for a chain of 16 charter schools called Classical Academies. These charters purport to offer “the same course of study that helped propel Western Civilization to the top of the world,” according to what at least one of these schools says on its website.
The Barney project’s strong political agenda was revealed in its former mission statement, since taken down, which said the Initiative seeks to “recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.” The statement also said, “The charter school vehicle possesses the conceptual elements that permit the launching of a significant campaign of classical school planting to redeem American public education.”
Charter schools created with the help of the Barney Initiative are also proving to be an ideal vehicle for evading laws enforcing separation of church and state. Since my investigation into the opening of a Barney-related charter in Colorado called Golden View Classical Academy, an independent news outlet in that state confirms the school indeed provides students a religion-based curriculum on the taxpayers’ dime.
As Marianne Goodland of the Colorado Independent reports, charter schools like Golden View “have found a legal workaround, and many Democratic and Republican lawmakers are looking the other way.”
Goodland recalls when Golden View applied to the district school board for approval, the school’s director “assured the board Golden View would not use a religious curriculum” and “agreed to comply with the intent of Colorado’s sexual education law by providing ‘appropriate instruction on human anatomy, reproduction and sexuality.'”
Yet, she notes the school’s family handbook, “adopted before the charter application was approved includes references to teaching about sexual intercourse only “in the context of a monogamous relationship between two people of opposite sexes,” a focus on abstinence, admonitions on “the moral and physical consequences of promiscuous sex,” and the “limited effectiveness” of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
Goodlad blames a loose, unregulated waiver process for allowing charter schools like Golden View to skirt state laws, and she points to Colorado public officials who provide charters ample leeway to ensure they have the “autonomy” which they claim justifies their existence.
Keep in mind, Barney-related charters like Golden View, that essentially function like private religious schools while receiving taxpayer money, are scattered across the country; their network is growing, and a Trump administration that has pledged to provide more money for “school choice” will only help fuel more rapid expansions of these schools.
“Neither the public nor lawmakers understand the extent of the problem,” Goodlad concludes.
How DeVos and Hillsdale intersect
Unsurprisingly, Hillsdale president Arnn says Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, “is someone he ‘knows and admires,'” according to right-wing news outlet Breitbart.
And why not, since Hillsdale also has strong ties to DeVos and her immediate family.
As the Hillsdale campus newspaper reports, DeVos’s “roots in Michigan philanthropy run deep and also intersect with Hillsdale College. Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, a 1992 graduate of Hillsdale College and the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, now named Academi. In 2009, the DeVos family also founded ArtPrize, an international art competition that featured the work of five art professors and students this year. Most notably, Richard DeVos, Betsy DeVos’ father-in-law, co-founded Amway with Jay Van Andel. Van Andel’s son, Steve, was a 1978 graduate of Hillsdale and currently serves as the chairman of Amway. In 2013, after he donated to graduate school scholarships and operations, Hillsdale named its graduate school of statesmanship in his honor.”
Jay Van Andel was also, at the time of his death, a trustee of Hillsdale College, according to Wikipedia.
Most extremist administration ever?
“Those who know DeVos say her goals are not sinister,” Politico reporters caution, “though they acknowledge the policies she’s likely to advance would benefit Christian schools. In fact, Trump’s $20 billion school choice program that would allow low-income students to select private or charter schools was devised with the help of the advocacy group DeVos headed until recently.”
Despite the strong evidence Trump’s education agenda may be driven by right-wing evangelicals, advocates for charter schools in the Democratic Party keep looking for reasons to believe Betsy DeVos is not going to be the extremist she is often portrayed as in media reports.
On hearing the news of the DeVos nomination, the politically centrist hedge fund-backed Democrats for Education Reform released a statement congratulating DeVos on her appointment and applauding her “commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools,” while at the same time regretting that her nomination is the outcome of a political campaign driven by “bigoted and offensive rhetoric.” (Never mind the charter schools DeVos helped grow in Michigan seem less than “high quality.")
Another centrist Democrat deeply embedded in the investment community, Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Partners, hopes a Trump administration will offer up a plan for charter school expansion that includes “sweeteners for the Congressional Black Caucus” – a condescending and white privilege phrase if there ever was one.
Emma Brown, the education reporter for the Washington Post, notes many advocates for charter schools “worry” Trump’s embrace of charter schools may be identified with his “rhetoric about immigrants, inner cities, and women,” but still hope some kind of “strong accountability” will be in the new administration’s charter school governance, even though those accountability measures have proven to be easily gamed by the savviest charter operators.
“Playing the politics of niceness has never been so convenient for the Dems of education reform,” writes college professor and former charter school leader-turned reform critic Andre Perry. “DeVos’s belief in limited state oversight, for-profit charter management, and vouchers didn’t give Democrat proponents of charter schools any pause in the past. And for many it doesn’t now.”
If Perry is correct, that’s a shame, because anyone who strives for a clear-eyed view of the Trump administration’s oncoming education agenda will find there is no evidence—zero—of anything other than the most extreme policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.