To Understand Betsy DeVos’s Educational Views, View Her Education

By Erica L. Green

New York Times, 6/10/17

Posted 6/12/17

 

HOLLAND, Mich. — The students formed a circle around the Rev. Ray Vanderlaan, who

draped himself in a Jewish ceremonial prayer shawl to cap his final lesson to graduating

seniors in his discipleship seminar at Holland Christian High School.

 

“We’re sending you out into a broken world, in part because of my generation,” the

minister told the students. Referring to God, he exhorted them to “extend his kingdom.”

 

Mr. Vanderlaan could not have missed his lesson’s echoes of Holland Christian’s most

famous graduate, Betsy DeVos, who proclaimed in an audio recording that surfaced in

December that her education advocacy would “advance God’s kingdom.” Last month, in

her first commencement address as education secretary, Ms. DeVos again reflected her

own education when she told graduates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona

Beach, Fla., that “my generation hasn’t done a great job when it comes to dealing with

one another in grace.”

 

She continued, “You have an opportunity to do better.”

 

Holland Christian is one of several western Michigan nonpublic schools that have helped

shape Ms. DeVos’s views of elementary and secondary education, and that her critics

fear she will draw from to upend the nation’s public schools. The private Christian

school that she attended, another that she sent her children to and a hardscrabble

private religious school that she has long supported have dominated her time, money

and attention.

 

Public neighborhood schools — the vast majority of schools in this country — were

hardly present in the billionaire’s childhood or adult life.

Critics say this lopsided exposure fueled Ms. DeVos’s staunch support of privately run,

publicly funded charter schools and voucher programs that allow families to take tax

dollars from the public education system to private schools.

 

In an interview, Ms. DeVos disagreed, saying the schools in which she has personal

investment reflect only an agenda of empowering parents with a right that she was

afforded by privilege: choice.

 

“Some say, ‘You’re trying to force all families to make choices other than public schools,’

and the response to that is, ‘Absolutely not,’” Ms. DeVos said. “If your public school is

working great for your child, you should embrace that and support it and celebrate it.

And if not, you should have the opportunity to choose something different.”

 

Ms. DeVos has maintained that she is “agnostic” about the type of schools that parents

choose for their children. But in western Michigan, skeptics doubt professions of openmindedness

from someone who grew up in Holland — a town founded by Dutch

Calvinist separatists and perceived as insular — and educated in parochial schools.

 

“The Christian schools in Michigan were set up to be separate from the state, and now

her intent is to use the state to finance them,” said Mary Bouwense, president of the

Grand Rapids Education Association, who has taught in public schools for 25 years. “I

know she says it’s about choice, but it’s really about funneling money to what she

knows.”

 

“I think her agenda is shaped by her idea of what God wants for the world,” Ms.

Bouwense said.

 

Holland Christian’s superintendent, Dan Meester, said he was not surprised that the

school’s most famous alumna has seemed unshaken by the backlash.

 

“What we teach here is to identify areas of this world infected with chaos and ask how,

as a Christian, can I help bring shalom to that,” he said, using the Hebrew word for

peace. “What we see is her out there saying, ‘There are families and students in this

country for whom the education system is chaos, and they need it to be flourishing.’”

 

Ms. DeVos attended the elementary, middle and high schools at Holland Christian.

Students there go to chapel three times a week, a display of crucifixes from around the

world graces the main corridor and the school’s sports teams are encouraged to

“compete in God-honoring ways.”

 

Ms. DeVos was not as cloistered as her schooling would suggest, she said. She attended

dances and football games with her public school friends because there were none at

Holland Christian. She recalled that for her high school’s junior banquet, students would

decorate the gym, get dressed up, go out to eat and then go home.

 

“I thought: ‘That is really dumb. We need to have dancing,’” she said. During her junior

year, her parents began sponsoring dances off-site after the banquet, a tradition that

continues.

 

Holland Christian now serves 1,700 students across five schools for $6,000 to $8,000 a

year. But about one-third of the school’s families receive a total of about $1 million a

year in financial aid.

 

The attention brought by Ms. DeVos, who graduated in 1975, has put Holland Christian

on the defensive in recent months.

 

“We value faith and learning,” Mr. Meester said. “You will never hear a teacher say, ‘I

don’t care if you forget everything, as long as God loves you.’”

 

Ms. DeVos described the role of religion in her life: “My faith motivates me to really try

to work on behalf of and advocate for those who are least able to advocate for

themselves.”

 

Her children were mostly educated in private Christian schools because of their

proximity to home and the DeVoses’ preference for faith-based learning. The children

attended Ada Christian Schools for primary school, which Ms. DeVos praised for its

creativity and teachers.

 

She decided to home-school her elder daughter in sixth through eighth grades because,

Ms. Devos said, the daughter had grown increasingly bored in school and the girls in her

class were growing increasingly “catty.”

 

All four of Ms. DeVos’s children graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School, in

the largest western Michigan city, about 45 minutes from Holland. Ms. DeVos said she

had preferred Grand Rapids’s Christian school over others because its philosophy was to

“engage with the world, not hide from the world.”

 

The DeVoses also preferred private schools because, she said, they were independent

and could be more flexible when she and her husband, Dick DeVos, wanted their

children to accompany them on business travel.

 

“If you ask any of my kids today what their most important experience was in their

education, they would say it was the travel and the ability to see and be in other

cultures,” she said.

 

Ms. DeVos also said she had chosen Grand Rapids Christian because it was more diverse

than her neighborhood school in the wealthy suburb of Ada. Today, Grand Rapids

Christian’s enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade is more than 25 percent

minority, 30 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, and 45

percent receive financial aid.

 

Tom DeJonge, superintendent of Grand Rapids Christian Schools and a longtime friend

of the DeVos family, said he was proud that the school drew students who couldn’t

cover full tuition, as the DeVoses did (they paid about $10,000 a year per child), and

who took public transit to school.

 

On a recent visit, the school looked like a relaxed comprehensive public high school:

Students lounged in the hallway eating ice cream cones or bantered with their

chemistry teacher. The school embraces both secular and nonsecular curriculums.

Students learn creationism and evolution and study other religious influences like

Hinduism.

 

“It’s impossible to separate God and Scripture from any other aspect of life,” but other

influences do intrude, Mr. DeJonge said. “We do not put our heads in the sand, and

neither does Betsy.”

 

Larry Borst, who taught all of the DeVos children, recalled their asking probing questions

about religion. They did not expect to be treated any differently just because their last

name adorned buildings across town.

 

“Sure, they went on better vacations, but they’re just dirt-floor people,” Mr. Borst said.

 

Ms. DeVos is still involved in the school. She has mentored one Grand Rapids Christian

student, whom she met while a mentor in the public school system, for more than a

decade. And the school’s DeVos Center for Arts and Worship attests to the hundreds of

thousands of dollars the family has donated.

 

That involvement has not won over all her critics.

 

“The fact that she’s mentored a child or two doesn’t change the fact that she is Public

Enemy No. 1 for public schools,” said Brandon Dillon, who represented Grand Rapids in

the State House for four years and is chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

 

John Booy has no time for such “hysterics,” which he said were fueled by teachers’

unions, including the one he belonged to for 27 years as a Grand Rapids Public Schools

teacher. Mr. Booy met Ms. DeVos more than 30 years ago, shortly after she visited the

school he founded, called the Potter’s House. She had missed a fund-raising event, then

called him to apologize and ask if she could visit.

 

The Potter’s House is one of the few schools that Ms. DeVos has referred to by name in

her campaign for school choice, saying the school represented the kinds of families who

used choice to obtain a better education for their children. The DeVoses have been

“partners” at the school for decades, underwriting individual students’ $5,000 tuition,

and even entire classes for $25,000.

 

The school allows families to pay what they can afford, most no more than 10 percent of

their net income.

 

Mr. Booy, a self-described “radical idealist,” started the “Christ-centered urban school”

36 years ago. He had thought he could change the world after college by moving to a

low-income neighborhood and becoming a public school teacher. But at gatherings he

hosted at his home, he saw public school students falling through the cracks.

 

A pastor asked him and his colleagues to start a school, and the Potter’s House —

named after scriptural verse in Jeremiah 18 — was born.

 

“I think getting involved with the school was an education for her,” Mr. Booy said of Ms.

DeVos. “She could hear stories of people and their desperation, and the problems they

run against just trying to get a good education.”

 

About 60 percent of the Potter’s House’s 560 students are minority and low-income,

from 37 countries; 30 percent speak Spanish. Five Syrian refugees enrolled in the high

school this year.

 

Each student is greeted by name and a handshake, and the school’s elementary and

middle schools are wallpapered in student art, murals and “vision boards” with smiling

faces of alumni who are first-generation collegegoers.

 

Mr. Booy said two things separated his school and his old public school: teacher

involvement and parent buy-in.

 

Though teachers are not unionized, they are certified, and all are required to sign off on

their application that “I accept without reservation the school’s statement of faith.”

Parents are required to sign a similar statement, attend all three annual parent-teacher

conferences and commit to 25 hours of service a year or leave the school. No one has

had to leave. The school has a waiting list of more than 200.

 

Mr. Booy rejects the notion that his school is doing harm to public schools.

 

“Even though we’re not a public school, we’re educating for the public good,” he said. “I

think we need to be more about saving a child than a child saving the system.”