Betsy DeVos: The Fox and the Hen House

· Logos/Ethos

They say the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings. For today, we might say the schoolhouse doesn’t open until the school marm rings the bell. Our national school marm, Betsy DeVos, is lifting the bell as parents and teachers all over the country cry, “No, not with my kids you don’t! Not until we’re sure they’re safe!”

It would be easy to argue that by reopening schools DeVos is simply deferring to her boss who would be quite content opening not only schools but restaurants and stadiums if it would create the impression that Covid-19 has magically disappeared as he predicted in April. But given the contextual history of DeVos’s long association with White evangelicalism, we might benefit by looking a little deeper.

The context is this. Since the 1970’s, White evangelicals have been trying to destroy public education, one school board at a time, by any means necessary. Why? Let’s go back even further, a century earlier, to get a handle on that.

Omitting Horace Mann, no one has had a greater influence on the direction of American public education than philosopher John Dewey (Democracy and Education, 1916). Dewey argued that a democratic society ought to be “intentionally progressive” and committed to change. After decades of European immigration and relocation of Southern Blacks, Dewey saw that society was in flux and believed schools should develop citizens who could adapt to the rapid change of ideas and beliefs. Conservative forces condemned Dewey’s theory as dangerous to the nation because it would ultimately undermine the social order established in the Old Testament and maintained through the “traditional” family.

The conservative orthodoxy valued the handing down of established authority (the Bible and creationism), the preservation of the patriarchal family (autocratic with submissive, obedient wives and children), dogmatic curriculums, and authoritarian, even corporal, discipline. Dewey replaced that teacher-centered tradition with a vision of a child-centered classroom which was experiential in nature and focused on exploration, discovery, critical thinking, and community-building. Conservatives quickly saw this as socialistic and promoting secular humanism.

By the 1970’s, the evangelical community had seen enough. They believed the Dewey-inspired direction of education had born its natural fruit – the decline of the family and the church (divorce rates, attendance), disrespect for authority (anti-war, anti-racism riots in the street), decline of traditional masculine and feminine roles (military failure in Vietnam and the rise of homosexuality and feminism). White evangelicals began to organize politically. Their target? The system of public education seemingly responsible for all of the above.

Since the 1970’s we have seen evidence of the effectiveness of the evangelical strategy. Throughout the South and Midwest, thousands of new, small, private schools, most of them Christian, have siphoned off White students, leaving behind a de facto segregated, poor and Black public system. Numerous battles have been waged by the Religious Right: some won (home schooling, school choice, charter schools); some lost (sex ed, school prayer). But they have been hugely successful in keeping the ultimate solution, a far-reaching national plan to elevate public education toward excellence, off the table.

The crowning victory was Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos, devout Christian donor and advocate of private, religious schools and for-profit colleges, to become the Secretary of Education, overseer of the nation’s public schools. Fortunately for the nation, Ms. DeVos’s influence and executive skills aren’t sufficient to wreak any permanent damage to the system. Except for perhaps this last golden opportunity. By ostensibly forcing parents to return their children to crowded, compromised schools, denied of federal funds to reconstruct their environments in an attempt to diminish transmission of the virus, she is provoking parents with resources (largely White and possibly with federal micro-grants in their hands) to abandon their public schools and either home school or enroll in smaller, private and religious schools more capable of accommodating kids safely. Fox meets hen house.