Betsy DeVos: School Choice, the Establishment Clause, Religious Liberty, and Public Education

According to Benjamin Wermund of POLITICO, the religious views of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, are closely connected to her philosophy of school choice.  Wermund shares a transcript and video clips of a 15-year-old interview in which Dick and Betsy DeVos attribute their promotion of school choice and privatization through publicly funded school vouchers to their Christian values and their desire to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

Betsy DeVos explains: “We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition—there were more choices for people to make freely—that all of the schools would become better as a result.” Wermund continues: “However, the DeVoses also say public schools have ‘displaced’ the church in terms of importance.” Wermund quotes Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, who was also part of the interview: “The church—which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community.  It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment—whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be—that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”

In the interview, Betsy DeVos is asked why the DeVoses have not spent their philanthropic dollars to support religious schools themselves.  She replies that they, “want to reform the whole system to bring ‘greater Kingdom gain… We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases… not well spent.'”

Despite that in the 2002 decision in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the use of publicly funded vouchers at religious schools as long as the voucher is given to the family and not directly to the school, endorsement by government of religious institutions is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.  Provisions in a number of state constitutions also explicitly reject the expenditure of public dollars for sectarian institutions, including for tuition vouchers and tuition tax credits.

Here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  The first part of the First Amendment (referred to as the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s in any way favoring—“establishing”— any particular religion , and the second clause guarantees residents of the United States the right to worship according to their own traditions.

Despite that Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, seems to have other views based on her own Christian beliefs, the principles of the First Amendment have been endorsed by religious people throughout our history.  America’s major religious denominations have strongly endorsed the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom in the public schools. Ensuring that public schools do not “establish” or favor one set of religious beliefs over another means that parents will not have to worry that a school will teach religious beliefs contrary to the tradition of their family.

In 1995 the First Amendment Center convened a group of religious and educational leaders who endorsed a set of principles (Finding Common Ground, pp. 11-13):

  1. “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.
  2. “Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.
  3. “Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.
  4. “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

The communities of faith that subscribed to these principles were: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Christian Coalition, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Many religious organizations have passed strong resolutions to affirm their support of public schools that honor the First Amendment principle of religious liberty. Some have even formally opposed providing publicly funded vouchers for students to attend parochial schools. I must clarify Wermund’s commentary in one important respect: Dick and Betsy DeVos’s beliefs, as Wermund describes them, represent neither the views of all Calvinist or Reformed Protestants nor the policy resolutions of their communions.

Here is the statement passed in 1999 by the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches: “Although many of the member denominations of the National Council of the Churches of Christ have issued statements supportive of public education, and although the NCC itself has made its pro-public schools stance clear for several decades, in recent years the voices of our churches have been largely absent from the ongoing debate about the meaning and future of our nation’s schools.  As a result, public consciousness has been dominated by religious and political groups whose view of public schools is largely negative.  With this statement we propose to bring the voices of our member churches back into the present debate, bringing with us our traditional support for…  strengthening… the public schools… While we acknowledge and affirm the contribution of private schools to the welfare of children and the nation, public schools are the primary route for most children—especially the children of poverty—into the full participation in our economic, political, and community life.  As a consequence, all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, have a moral responsibility to support, (and) strengthen… the public schools… Just as we encourage schools to ensure that all religions are treated with fairness and respect, so we urge parents and others to refrain from the temptation to use public schools to advance the cause of any one religion or ethnic tradition… We… caution that government aid to primary and secondary religious schools raises constitutional problems, and could undermine the schools’ independence and/or compromise their religious message.”

Later in 2010, the over-sixty members of the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches voted to adopt a pastoral letter that was sent to the President, the U.S. Secretary of Education and members of Congress.  The NCC Governing Board’s pastoral statement declares: “As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children… We support democratic governance of public schools.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. We believe that democratic operation of public schools is our best hope for ensuring that families can secure the services to which their children have a right. On balance, we believe that if government invests public funds in charter schools that report to private boards, government, not the vicissitudes of the marketplace, should be expected to provide oversight to protect the common good.”

Several decades ago, in a 1985 pronouncement, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ—the denomination where I staffed work in public education justice from 1998 until 2013—more explicitly rejects the use of publicly funded vouchers to pay students’ tuition in religious and private schools: “We defend the right of parents to choose alternative, private, religious, or independent schools, but continue to declare that those schools should be funded by private sources of income.”

Although very often we take the basic principles of civics for granted, we need to be able to articulate clearly and concisely what the First Amendment is about.  The purpose of this post has been to review the basic principle of religious liberty and to clarify that Betsy DeVos’s views on religion and public education are extremist; they not shared by the American religious mainstream.

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8 thoughts on “Betsy DeVos: School Choice, the Establishment Clause, Religious Liberty, and Public Education

  1. Despite the evidence that competition and choice, the two words that sound so sweet to Betsy DeVos’s ears, do not result in better education for children, DeVos will try to move the ball toward that goal. What is truth anymore in this god-forsaken nation? As a Presbyterian Deacon, I’m going to have to see if the Presbyterian Church (USA) is going to “speak up for those unable to speak for themselves” eg. the poor, and lobby to improve public education rather than destroy it. Hey, I just remembered, the President-elect said he’s Presbyterian! Maybe he’ll listen to our Presbyterian leaders. But maybe not!

  2. I knew Betsy DeVos’s nomination was bad news, but her smug simplemindedness is unconscionable. Can’t she get it through her head that public schools should be public? That public schools “belong” not just to current students and their parents, but to the general public (because we pay for them and need them to serve the common weal)? Choice is NOT necessarily or always “good for everybody.” It depends, among other things, on what the choice entails, whether the chooser is competent to choose, and whom and/or what that choice is likely to harm. And has Betsy DeVos given any serious thought whatsoever to the place of “competition” in schooling? That is surely a very complicated subject. And money can’t buy the thoughtfulness and experience required to deal with it.

  3. I appreciate your service. You miss on a couple of points. I lived in Bowling Green KY, and I attended Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. It is the local college, publicly supported. Yes, there are dorms where students live who come from all over the USA, and foreign countries. But a large number of the students at my alma mater, live off-campus and commute.
    K-12 schools are most often located in the community, and the students live at home with parents. The rich, liberal elites get to attend Choate, and Phillips Exeter, and Andover and exclusive residential “prep” schools. Illinois has the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), a three year residential prep school for gifted and talented students (publicly supported). The legislature got this school started, and the teacher’s unions in Illinois fought it tooth and nail, calling it “elitist”. In 1983 in Maryland the governor attempted to start a four-year residence prep school for gifted/talented. The NEA/AFT fought it, and the idea perished.
    You say Q Parents prefer to have a good neighborhood school where they meet their neighbors and their children meet children who are different from their own small world. END Q This seems antithetical. You say the kids will be from their own neighborhood, but different from their own small world.
    If the government feels that neighborhood schools are so great, why did they institute cross-town bussing for racial balance? This insanity ripped kids out of the inner-city, and put them in the suburban schools, and ripped kids out of safe neighborhoods, and planted them in dilapidated ghetto-schools. See Swann v. Mecklenburg
    https://www.oyez.org/cases/1970/281
    You say Q When school choice is instituted, segregation grows by religion, race, and income. END Q. I disagree. What we have now, is a system of quality private education for the rich liberal elites, and the rest of the school kids are condemned to a wretched existence in failing, lousy, dilapidated schools. The rich can afford to pay for a quality education for their kids, and also pay for a school education that they do not use. The rich can afford to pay twice, and everyone else is told to stay put in the crappy schools.
    There are only about 174,000 children in the USA receiving school vouchers, out of over 50 million kids. I would like to see what data you have to support the assertion that school-choice leads to racial segregation.
    I believe that empowering parents to select alternate schooling is inherently democratic. Private/parochial schools will be able to accept more students from a more diverse socio-economic background, and the result will be more diversity in the private/parochial schools.
    The history of “common” schools, is that they were to be publicly supported through the public purse. See
    http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1871/Common-School-Movement.html
    My understanding of the word “common” : from dictionary.com

    “of mediocre or inferior quality; mean; low:
    a rough-textured suit of the most common fabric.”
    The public schools in this country are indeed “common”. Cheap, mediocre, of poor quality and low. My feelings exactly. I want America’s children to be in excellent schools, not common ones.
    I am not convinced that the Founders wanted all of America’s children to be shoved into failing schools, run by the government monopoly. It is fair to agree that they supported an educated populace See
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/1/27/1360440/-7-things-our-founders-believed-about-public-education

    Children from different socio-economic backgrounds attended (and still attend) the publicly-supported schools. And before 1954, there was racial segregation, no dispute. It took the Supreme Court to officially end it. See Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
    No sane person wants to have a school system for “colored” and “white”. BUT- What we have now is a dual system. The rich liberal elites can send their kids to any school of their choice. People who cannot pay twice, are condemned to government-monopoly schools. If one spouse can afford not to work outside the home, the family can home-school, and still pay to support the schools their kids do not attend. One fact that is roaring down the track like a freight train, is on-line schooling for K-12 at home. This will help to break the back of the government monopoly.

  4. The religious issue has been solved since 2002. The Supreme Court (USA) ruled that giving parents choice (in the form of vouchers,etc), to attend religiously-affiliated schools is entirely constitutional. See Zelman v. Simmons-Harris 2002

    https://www.oyez.org/cases/2001/00-1751

    Citizens can use public funds to purchase non-religious items and services from religiously-affiliated entities.

    You can get a Pell Grant (Basic Educational Opportunity Grants) and attend Notre Dame, Yeshiva, Brigham Young, or Islamic University of America.

    You can get SNAP (food stamps) and redeem them at a food pantry operated by Catholic Charities.

    The first amendment does not put a block on the use of public funds, to obtain goods and services from religious entities. NO establishment of religion is accrued.

    I suggest that people who have a purported objection to school choice on religious grounds, should look to Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

  5. Pingback: Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 1 | janresseger

  6. Pingback: Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 2 | janresseger

  7. Pingback: An Open Letter to Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, re: the Nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education – resseger

  8. Pingback: “School Choice Week,” January 22-28, 2017 | Mark's Text Terminal

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