Politics & Policy

The ‘Scary Christian’ School-Choice Panic Is upon Us

DeVos testifies at her confirmation hearing, January 17, 2017. (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
Betsy DeVos is being criticized for her charitable giving because it happens to be motivated by faith in God.

My childhood in Western Michigan was rather ordinary, I suppose.

Together with my Dutch-imported family, I’d gather on weekends at the local Christian Reformed Church, eating piles of imported Voortman wafer cookies while plotting how to best install a theocracy in our unsuspecting Midwestern state.

During the week, at my Christian high school, we’d secretly boil a big pot of oliebollen — traditional Dutch donuts that, to be honest, aren’t as good as regular donuts — and cook up a menu of ideas to destroy the American education system.

In our free time, we’d do our best to enforce repressive and arbitrary laws in our small, idyllic, and largely Dutch town, marching in lockstep as we aimlessly purchased windmill-shaped tchotchkes and engaged in the occasional public shaming. The tallest tulip, after all, always gets cut!

I kid, I kid. But if you read the panicked media coverage of Betsy DeVos, the Christian Michigander nominated to be our nation’s next education secretary, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is how things shake out daily in America’s Calvinist Dutch heartland.

“Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom,’” bellowed Mother Jones yesterday. DeVos, a “socially conservative Christian,” represents “the worst of the school choice movement,” declared The New Republic. Because of her conservative Christianity, DeVos is a “religious zealot” and “doesn’t belong in a government job in which separation of church and state is crucial,” huffed the Huffington Post.

In case it’s never happened to you, it’s both amusing and illuminating to see your childhood home inflated into a quietly sinister and exotic locale. The wide-eyed Mother Jones reporter leads her story with a list of Holland, Michigan’s draconian rules — Grass clippings must be picked up! Fences must be maintained! — while failing to mention, say, Los Angeles’s recently overturned beach-Frisbee ban or the existing high-heel ban in California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea.

An analysis from Newsweek, meanwhile — subtly entitled “Betsy DeVos Is Coming for Your Public Schools” — examines the conservative Calvin College, DeVos’s alma mater, like a newly discovered, mysteriously abandoned, alien time machine: “Any attempt to forecast what DeVos might do as the nation’s education secretary must begin here, at this college of 4,000 that bids its students to act as ‘Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.’” Oh dear! What could this terrifying credo possibly inspire students to do?

If the horror show surrounding DeVos’s nomination is any indication, there’s a lot at stake in the school-choice wars.

In DeVos’s case, it may have inspired her to donate millions upon millions of dollars to charitable causes, including health care, the arts, and, yes, school choice.

DeVos has long supported charter schools and vouchers, which would indeed shake up the public-school system as we know it, allowing parents to send their children to schools beyond the confines of their district or zip code — confines that are currently dictated by how much money a family has to spend on a house in the “right” neighborhood. In this government-sponsored stacking of the deck, rich kids almost always win, and poor kids often lose.

For those who wail about the separation of church and state — an argument often aimed at vouchers or, to a lesser extent, education tax credits, which can be used to pay for private or religious schools — it’s worth pointing out that we’re talking about the taxpayers’ own money. This money is helpfully taken by the state, wound through the system, skimmed off the top, and then returned at a lower rate. It’s also worth pointing out that widespread school choice — and the ability of parents to send their children to schools that echo their religious or personal beliefs — would defuse many of the child-related culture wars wreaking havoc today.

Alas, school choice is scary stuff, especially for those entrenched in the current system. In this realm, DeVos’s Christianity isn’t the only tool used to whip up alarm. “The best argument against Betsy DeVos can be made with a single word,” Newsweek opined. “Detroit.” The Motor City, as the narrative goes, is plagued with failing schools, and school choice has simply made them worse.

That’s certainly news to many in Detroit. “DeVos is a sound choice, and would strive to improve education for all kids,” the Detroit News editorial board wrote on January 12, cautioning against “the hysteria surrounding the West Michigan native, fanned by teachers unions.” As the Wall Street Journal pointed out over the weekend, “Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.” Oh.

If the horror show surrounding DeVos’s nomination is any indication, there’s a lot at stake in the school-choice wars. But when it comes down to it, for most people, failing or unjust schools are a heck of a lot scarier than devout Christians with a penchant for charitable giving. When it comes to expanding educational opportunities, simply shouting “The Christians are coming! The Christians are coming!” probably isn’t going to fly. Let’s hope it doesn’t.

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