You may also like
This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
At the Heritage Academy, a publicly funded charter school network in Arizona, according to a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, high school students are required to learn that the Anglo-Saxon population of the United States is descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. They are asked to memorize a list of 28 “Principles” of “sound government,” among which are that “to protect man’s rights, God has revealed certain Principles of divine law” (the ninth Principle) and that “the husband and wife each have their specific rights appropriate to their role in life” (the 26th Principle). To complete the course, students are further required to teach these principles to at least five individuals outside of school and family.
Over in Detroit, the Marvin L. Winans Academy of Performing Arts charter school—also taxpayer-funded—is a subsidiary of the Perfecting Church, a religious organization headed by Marvin L. Winans himself. Until recently, the board of WAPA consisted almost entirely of clergy, “prophets,” or prominent members of the Perfecting Church, and it appears that the views of the board are expressed directly in the practices of the school; students are required to recite a “WAPA Creed” that invokes “a super-intelligent God.”
In Texas, Allen Beck, the founder of Advantage Academy, a four-campus charter school funded by taxpayers, has said he established the schools in order to bring “the Bible, prayer, and patriotism back into the public school system, legally.”
And the American Heritage Academy, a two-campus charter school also located in Arizona, describes itself as a “unique educational experience with old-fashioned principles that have worked for hundreds of years.” The school boasts a list of “Principles of Liberty” that include “The role of religion is foundational,” “To protect rights God revealed certain divine laws,” and “Free market and minimal government best support prosperity.”
You might think that these egregious examples of church-school fusion are anomalies in the emerging charter school universe. But they are not. The charter school movement has provided shelter for religious and ideological activists who have specific theological and political goals for public education. Many of them are opposed to the very idea of public schools in the first place.
The Barney Charter Initiative’s former mission statement, which has since been taken down, declared that its goal was to “redeem” American public education and “recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism.” Here, a kindergarten class waits for recess at the Barney-supported Mason Classical Academy in Naples, Florida
To be clear, the charter movement in the United States is large, fragmented, and complex, and includes many individuals and groups that sincerely wish to promote and improve public education. Many charter advocates respect the separation of church and school. But a wing of the charter movement that is ideologically or religiously opposed to “government schools” was present at the charter movement’s creation, and has grown to comprise a sizable segment of the charter universe. With the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, it is presently empowered as never before.
In the decades before her appointment, DeVos was one of the primary architects of a First Amendment anomaly—the public funding of religious academies. In the months since she took the helm at the Department of Education, that still seems her first priority. Her meetings with educators have been populated with leaders and teachers from private, religious, and charter schools, as well as homeschooling advocates. Trump’s first budget allots $1.4 billion to bolster the school choice movement—enough funding to enable DeVos to ramp up her campaign for taxpayer-supported sectarian schools.
WHILE CHARTER SCHOOLS are supposed to be nonsectarian, many are run by operators with a distinctly religious or partisan political agenda. In order to understand the impact of this particular segment of the charter movement, one must begin with the history of the pro-voucher movement.
Vouchers first came to prominence as a way to funnel state money to racially segregated religious academies. In the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, white Americans in the South organized massive resistance against federal orders to desegregate schools. While some districts shut down public schools altogether, others promoted “segregation academies” for white students, often with religious programming, to be subsidized with tuition grants and voucher schemes. Today, vouchers remain popular with supporters of religious schools, many of whom see public education as inherently secular and corrupt.
Vouchers are also favored among disciples of the free-market advocate Milton Friedman, who see them as a step on the road to getting government out of the education business altogether. Speaking to an audience at a convention of the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2006, Friedman said, “The ideal would be to have parents control and pay for their school’s education, just as they pay for their food, their clothing, and their housing.” Acknowledging that indigent parents might be unable to afford their children’s education in the same way that they might suffer food or housing insecurity, Friedman added, “Those should be handled as charity problems, not educational problems.”
Up in western Michigan, the combination of religious conservatism and economic libertarianism in the voucher movement found a natural home. A century and a half ago, members of the Christian Reformed Church, a strict sect of Dutch Calvinists, settled the area around Holland, Michigan, where the conservative nature of the religion is still felt. Until several years ago, it was forbidden to serve alcohol at restaurants on Sundays. The area has also produced more than its share of ultra-conservative billionaires, among them Richard DeVos Sr., the co-founder of Amway; Jay Van Andel, his business partner; and Edgar Prince, an auto-parts magnate. In 1979, Prince’s daughter Betsy married Richard’s son, Dick Jr., making her Holland’s version of a crown princess.
Since the 1970s, Richard DeVos and his wife and children, including Dick and Betsy, have been major funders of the leading national groups on the religious right. Amway co-founder Van Andel, meanwhile, endowed and served as a trustee of Hillsdale College, which the religious right likes to cast as “the conservative Harvard.” In 1983, Betsy’s father, Edgar Prince, substantially contributed to the creation of the Family Research Council. The Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation is a key backer to groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal juggernaut of the religious right; and right-wing ministries and policy groups such as Focus on the Family.
The initiatives that Betsy DeVos and her husband have funded are not of the “social gospel” variety. Through their foundation, they donate money to the Foundation for Traditional Values, a nonprofit with a mission “to restore and affirm the Judeo-Christian values upon which America was established.” Shortly after its inception, the FTV distributed a book, America’s Providential History, which asserted, “A civil government built on Biblical principles provides the road on which the wheel of economic progress can turn with great efficiency.” A chapter titled “Principles of Christian Economics” posed the question “Why Are Some Nations in Poverty?” It goes on to explain that “[t]he primary reason that nations are in poverty is lack of spiritual growth. … Today, India has widespread problems, yet these are not due to a lack of food, but are a result of people’s spiritual beliefs. The majority of Indians are Hindus.”
In the mid-1990s, the FTV founded the Student Statesmanship Institute, which describes itself as “Michigan’s premier Biblical Worldview & Leadership Training for High School Students.” Betsy DeVos was listed on the SSI advisory board as recently as 2015, and has been featured as an active SSI program participant nearly as far back as the program had a functional website. SSI functions as a pipeline for Christian teens, many of whom are homeschooled or attend religious schools, seeking to engage in far-right politics. According to the SSI website, SSI “Legislative Experiences” instruct students in topics such as “Laying a Biblical Foundation, Ambassadors for Christ, Christian Citizenship, Worldviews in Action, Science and the Bible, and Debate and Communication.”
James Muffett, who heads FTV and is also the founder and head of SSI, appears from time to time on the Christian homeschooling circuit, where public schools—or “government schools” as they are frequently called—are routinely maligned. He spoke at one homeschooling convention where attendees were invited to watch the anti–public education film IndoctriNation. The film casts public schools as “a masterful design that sought to replace God’s recipe for training up the next generation with a humanistic, man-centered program that fragmented the family and undermined the influence of the Church and its Great Commission.”
If you want to better understand why the pious elite of Holland, Michigan, think of public education the way they do, a good place to start might be the 2003 report from the Synod, or general assembly, of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The church warns that “government schools” have “become aggressively and increasingly secular in the last forty years,” and claims they are engaged in “a deliberate program of de-Christianization” that is at odds with Christian morality. “Not only does there exist a climate of hostility toward the Christian faith,” the report continues, “the legitimate and laudable educational goal of multi-culturalism is often used as a cover to introduce pagan and New Age spiritualities such as the deification of mother earth (Gaia) to promote social causes such as environmentalism.” The report goes on to decry efforts, by “powerful lobbying groups” to resist “alternatives to public education such as charter schools and vouchers.”
Heirs Who Err: Dick and Betsy DeVos
BY THE LATE 1990S, Betsy and Dick DeVos had thrown their weight behind the voucher movement. They helped build and lead national organizations that funded pro-voucher organizations in states across the country. These initiatives took the form of both nonprofit work and campaign-finance work that helped elect pro-voucher politicians. As these efforts expanded, the DeVoses and their allies partnered with such existing conservative and “free market” think tanks as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Acton Institute in Michigan, both heavily funded by the DeVoses.
The DeVoses’ efforts suffered a serious setback in 2000 when a voucher referendum on the Michigan ballot failed. Voters in Michigan rejected the initiative by a two-to-one margin, despite millions of dollars in funding by the DeVos and Prince families. As part of that voucher effort, the DeVoses and their allies had backed charter organizations; even after the ballot failure, the conflation of vouchers and charters would become a common feature of their tactics. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation in 2002, Dick DeVos outlined new strategies for the movement, emphasizing the need to spend available funding on a system of rewards and “consequences” for state legislators.
One of the DeVoses’ initiatives, a network of PACs under the name All Children Matter, came under fire for violations of campaign-finance law, which included funneling contributions from its Virginia PAC to its affiliate in Ohio. When the group was issued a fine of over $5 million—as yet unpaid—it was effectively shuttered. These PACs were quickly replaced with new ones under different names, however, including American Federation for Children, which disseminated millions of dollars in several states in the 2010 midterm elections.
As the campaign-financing arm of the movement grew, so did the nonprofit arm. By 2009, Betsy DeVos had become chair of the major sister organizations of national pro-voucher nonprofits, Alliance for School Choice and Advocates for School Choice. As recently as July 2016, DeVos chaired the board of directors of the American Federation for Children, a group her family organized and funded, which works alongside the American Legislative Exchange Council to craft and support model “school choice” legislation.
Pro-voucher forces were nothing if not expert in devising inventive solutions to their failures. When the Florida Supreme Court ended a voucher program in 2006, advocates turned to an extensive and growing corporate tax credit scheme as a backdoor approach to voucher approval. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that national groups that protested the scheme lacked standing to sue. Still, the question of effectiveness persisted. A 2007 study of Milwaukee schools by professors from three universities showed poor to mixed results for vouchers there. A study of Indiana’s voucher program (hugely expanded by former Governor Mike Pence) found no change among student reading scores, and achievement losses in mathematics. A 2016 study funded by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, and conducted by David Figlio and Krzysztof Karbownik for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, asserted students who use vouchers tend to fare worse academically than closely matched peers who attend public schools.
Vouchers also failed to live up to advocates’ claims of effectiveness in dealing with racial and economic segregation issues. A Century Foundation report earlier this year concluded that vouchers intensify racial and religious segregation at schools. Another report, from the Economic Policy Institute, asserted that the loss of community-based schools compounds the problem by undermining programs in early education, summer school, and student health and nutrition. “All of these yield much higher returns than the minor, if any, gains that have been estimated for voucher students,” wrote Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, who authored the report.
BUT PUBLIC CONFUSION about vouchers and charters continued to create opportunities. A lightly regulated charter school industry could achieve many of the same goals as voucher programs. They could drain funding from traditional public schools, deregulate the education sector, and promote ideological or religious curricula—all without provoking the kind of resistance that vouchers received. Democrats, centrists, and secular education reformers who opposed voucher schemes were often favorably disposed to charters, which they saw as one of many tools available to public school systems.
DeVos and her allies decided to go all in for the charter movement. Many of the policy groups she and her allies funded followed suit. They became evangelists for “school choice,” a label that conveniently blurs the distinction between charter schools and voucher programs.
Some disguise would be necessary, of course. Dick DeVos advised a Heritage Foundation audience in 2002 that “we need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities.”
Some of DeVos’s allies in the voucher movement—including longtime political allies and mega-funders from western Michigan—rapidly joined the upper ranks of the new charter industry. J.C. Huizenga’s National Heritage Academies now has 48 schools in Michigan and 86 nationwide, making it the third-largest public charter operator in the country, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Clark Durant opened his own chain of charters under the name of Cornerstone Education Group. Hillsdale College created a subsidiary, Barney Charter School Initiative, to move into the charter business. And Foster Friess (the chief financial backer for former Senator Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns) joined the effort in promoting “charter schools, school choice, and innovative private sector solutions” in education.
While many charter operators appreciate that sensible regulation and oversight are essential to a healthy charter sector, DeVos and her allies consistently undermined efforts to check the activities of charters. Through the Great Lakes Education Project, DeVos lobbied the Republicans in the Michigan Legislature not just to expand charters but also to gut any meaningful regulation of the sector.
State Meets Church: President Donald Trump with Betsy DeVos and principal Latrina Peters-Gipson, during a tour of Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida
Michigan soon became a paradise for for-profit charter operators, most of them concentrated in urban areas. Half of Detroit’s children now attend charters—second in the nation only to New Orleans—and 80 percent of these are for-profit. The charter lobby not only secured the rights to massive expansion, but also scored some lucrative tax breaks. Charter operators who own the property that they lease to their own schools demanded—and received—a tax exemption on that property, an arrangement that has become increasingly common around the country.
The bonanza for the charter operators, however, has proved to be a bust for both the children of Michigan and the state’s taxpayers. A 2017 NAACP taskforce report on the efficacy and impact of charters quoted a teacher in Detroit: “It’s sad when you walk in a classroom here and you don’t even know it’s a biology classroom. We don’t have the materials, we don’t have the resources.” Speaking to The New York Times, Scott Romney, a board member of the civic and social justice organization New Detroit, said that the “point was to raise all schools,” but instead “we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.” A yearlong investigation into two decades of Detroit charters by the Detroit Free Press uncovered grotesque levels of financial mismanagement. At some schools, operators were putting family and friends on the payrolls. A record number of for-profit charters refused to declare how they spend taxpayer money.
“Michigan’s laws are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics,” the article concluded. “Taxpayers and parents are left clueless about how charter schools spend the public’s money, and lawmakers have resisted measures to close schools down for poor academic performance year after year.”
For DeVos and her allies in the voucher-cum-charter movement, the disastrous deregulation of Michigan education provided something more important than a way of lining pockets. It was, as DeVos once said, part of a project to “advance God’s kingdom.”
When Clark Durant founded Cornerstone in 1991, he intended to create private, religious schools with a clear dedicated mission of “lifting up a Christ-centered culture.” As recently as last summer, Durant described his education initiative as “trying to do the great prophet’s work, if you will … to help these children have fulfilling lives,” which he defined as “following the things Jesus would teach.” But four of Cornerstone’s five schools are now publicly funded charters. When Allie Gross of Chalkbeat Detroit toured one of the newly “de-converted” schools, she found religious posters on the wall and other markers of sectarianism.
“Pinpointing where the religious school ended and the charter school began was difficult,” Gross wrote. “The school is also in the process of re-thinking how they can make sure influential texts, such as the Bible, are still, legally, underscoring lessons.”
Meanwhile, over at Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, one doesn’t have to peel back many layers to arrive at the religious and ideological agenda. At the top of their web page is a link to Imprimis, a publication promoting a conservative political and religious agenda, with articles on “The Left’s War on Free Speech,” “A More American Conservatism,” and a piece titled “How to Think about Vladimir Putin,” defending the Russian dictator and assuring readers that he “is not the president of a feminist NGO,” “a transgender-rights activist,” or “an ombudsman appointed by the United Nations to make and deliver slide shows about green energy.” The Barney Charter Initiative’s former mission statement, which has since been taken down, declared that its goal was to “redeem” American public education and “recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism.”
Reporter Marianne Goodland of The Colorado Independent alleged that the school curriculum of Golden View Classical Academy, a charter school in Golden, Colorado, that is part of the Barney network, was offering students a religion-based curriculum. Such schools, she wrote, “have found a legal workaround, and many Democratic and Republican lawmakers are looking the other way.”
What goes for Michigan, it is now becoming clear, increasingly goes for charter schools across the nation. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based network of 73 charter schools presently operating in seven states, is the fourth-largest charter operator in the country, right after Huizenga’s National Heritage Academies. Charter Schools USA founder Jonathan Hage is a former staffer at the Heritage Foundation, and has a pattern of political giving to Republican politicians. He was rewarded by Florida Governor Rick Scott with a seat on Scott’s education transition team; from his perch, Hage reportedly influenced changes to state law intended to make it easier for charter chains to open new schools. Charter Schools USA is presently expanding into North Carolina, aided by such pro-charter politicians as the state’s two Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, both of whom have been recipients of DeVos’s political donations.
The sixth-largest network, Responsive Education Solutions, has included creationism and nationalist history materials in its schools’ curricula. According to the journalist Zack Kopplin, writing for Slate, biology workbooks used by Responsive Education Solutions “overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and allow creationism into public school classrooms.” RES co-founder and CEO Chuck Cook issued a statement in defense of the practice, asserting, “There is much research to be done in this area of origins. Until more concrete answers are found, questions on how life originated will continue.”
Vouchers are favored among disciples of the free-market advocate Milton Friedman, who see them as a step on the road to getting government out of the education business altogether.
Imagine Schools, seventh on the list, was co-founded by Dennis and Eileen Bakke, prominent funders of Christian evangelism worldwide. The Imagine charter network has drawn scrutiny for lease arrangements that absorb large amounts of taxpayer funding. One Imagine School charter in Land O’ Lakes, Florida, signed a lease from its landlord agreeing to a base rent of $757,989 per year; the landlord, Schoolhouse Finance, is a company that is also owned by Imagine Schools. Through their faith-based nonprofit Mustard Seed Foundation, the Bakkes give millions of dollars annually to a variety of overseas missionary operations. They are also generous donors to ministry projects, including a “Theology of Work” program promoting “biblically based theology” with an emphasis on the “Creation Mandate of Genesis 1.2 to subdue or rule the earth with God.”
The ninth-largest network in the country, Harmony Public Schools, is affiliated with the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, leader of the transnational Islamic social and religious movement called the Gulenist movement. Harmony schools have been accused of giving preference to Turkish teachers and vendors who are attached to the Gülen movement, and have been accused of abusing the visa program. The FBI has opened an investigation into whether Gülen followers are diverting money from their charters into the Gülen movement; several former teachers alleged they were forced to hand over part of their taxpayer-funded salaries to fund the Gülen movment in Turkey. A senior State Department official said Gülen-affiliated educational institutions and charities in the United States seem “a lot like the ways in which organized crime sets itself up … to hide money for money laundering.” In addition to Harmony, Gülen-affiliated groups operate other charter networks in the United States, giving Gülen-affiliated schools strong representation within the charter sector.
In sum, some of the largest charter operators in the country are in the hands of groups with clear religious or ideological agendas.
The proliferation of religious charters has spurred complaints to civil liberties organizations that defend the separation of church and state. Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney and the director of strategic response for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says the organization has seen an uptick in complaints—about 40 in the past five years—involving charter schools. They have included accounts of teachers leading students in prayer or running religious student clubs; charters imposing a religious creed on students; and charters forming unconstitutional partnerships with churches.
Frequently, cases stall because plaintiffs are afraid of being ostracized in their communities. Many are unwilling to expose their children to retaliation from school teachers, administrators, and classmates. In the case of Heritage Academy in Arizona, the federal judge barred the plaintiffs from proceeding as “John Doe” and has required them to use their initials; the plaintiffs contend that even their initials will give away their identities.
“Most of the time, you don’t know what goes on in the school unless you have kids there,” says Richard Katskee, chief legal counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “If you’ve chosen to send your kids there, you usually don’t complain.”
Americans United also reports an uptick in cases brought to its doors. “Prior to 2007, we saw basically no complaints about charter schools,” says Ian Smith, staff attorney for Americans United. “After 2007, the number of complaints related to charter schools steadily increased to the point where we regularly review charter school–related submissions and write letters to charter schools about constitutional violations.”
So far, one complaint has resulted in the closure of a school. In 2009, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a federal lawsuit against the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), alleging that TIZA, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, and TIZA’s landlords were linked by a complex set of overlapping relationships, and that the school was endorsing Islam in connection with school activities. The school was shut down by the Minnesota Department of Education in 2011.
Attempts to insert religion directly into the curriculum, in any case, are really only the most egregious examples of advancing the religious and ideological agendas of these charter operators. Other more-subtle methods are often used to convey such messages. One favored tactic is for charter schools to describe themselves as “classical academies,” aiming to teach “virtue,” our “national heritage,” and “the principles of the Founders.” It requires further investigation to reveal that the heritage in question is politicized and sectarian.
A former teacher with a Florida charter school, who declines to be named citing job concerns, says a right-wing religious viewpoint seeps into the school in multiple ways. The school is part of the Barney Charter Network. “They conduct orientations for parents, telling them how public education is ruining kids and we need to get back to how things used to be,” says the teacher. “A ‘nondenominational’ chaplain comes around and says stuff like ‘America is a Judeo-Christian nation’ founded on ‘Biblical principles.’” And, she adds, “everything is ‘American exceptionalism,’ Ayn Randian. If you’re screwed, it’s your fault.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reads to students at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington
GIVEN THE DECENTRALIZED nature of the American school system, the question inevitably arises whether Betsy DeVos will be able to enact a substantial “ed reform” agenda while serving as Trump’s education secretary. Some of her critics take comfort in the thought that DeVos’s programs are small drops in the education ocean, and are unlikely to survive passage through the political and bureaucratic channels of America’s hyper-complex education system. But this would be to underestimate both the legitimizing effect of her ceremonial actions and the disruptive effect of the kinds of initiatives she is proposing.
DeVos has hardly disguised her contempt for the principal constituencies for public schools. She appears to have minimized contact with traditional public school parents, teachers, and students. But she has more than enough time to spend with individuals and groups in the charter industry and for those associated with religious groups. And that has framed the federal government’s conversation around education in specific ways.
In February 2017, at one of her first high-profile gatherings as education secretary, DeVos invited a number of participants to join her and President Trump at the White House. “I’m really excited to be here today with parents and educators, representing traditional public schools, charter public schools, home schools, private schools—a range of choices,” DeVos said. Of the nine invitees at the table, seven were homeschoolers, representatives from religious schools, and education reform advocates. Only two were representatives of public schools, both working in special education.
More recently, in August 2017, DeVos attended and led an “education roundtable” of education leaders in Tallahassee, Florida. The leaders in question included six members of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which convened the meeting, and several clergy from other Baptist ministries. A dozen representatives of Florida universities, prominent school choice advocates, leaders of religious schools, five public school superintendents, elected Republican officials, and an office manager were also included. Not a single public school teacher or student was present.
Afterward, Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who attended the meeting, expressed his disappointment with DeVos. “It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public school system,” he said. “And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida to visit a charter school, a private school, and a voucher school”—but no traditional public schools.
The Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, on the other hand, stands to benefit directly from the DeVos agenda. The church-run school, the Bethel Christian Academy, already a voucher beneficiary, utilizes curricula from the Christian publisher Abeka, which is popular in the Christian homeschooling community. Abeka curricula is rooted in themes that fuse fundamentalist Christian identity with right-wing economic ideology. Science textbooks promote creationism, and others denigrate non-Christian faiths.
As education secretary, DeVos presently controls the over–$340 million Charter Schools Program Grants for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools. The amounts of money don’t seem that large in the context of America’s education system. Furthermore, the program, which is in the new Every Student Succeeds Act, is highly competitive, requiring that grantees meet certain quality standards to obtain one of the grants. But the Department of Education has the authority to add new priorities that applications have to address. So the secretary does have the power to shape grant competition in specific ways.
A greater concern, perhaps, is DeVos’s 2018 fiscal-year budget, which calls for an additional $1.4 billion for expanding “school choice,” including a $250 million voucher increase and an additional $167 million in a Charter Schools Grant program. The amounts of money in the budget, to be sure, are still a wish list, and remain subject to congressional approval. But given DeVos’s generous campaign contributions to the right-wing politicians who tend to advocate for “small government” in every other area, and the lip-service to charters and “choice” by right-wing Republicans, it seems probable that her education budget will receive a favorable hearing, and perhaps a greater likelihood of approval.
“I think the question comes down to the curriculum being taught,” says Anne Hyslop, an education consultant and former adviser at the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration, considering the issue of ideological bias. “What is the instructional program? I think that is often a question best dealt with by state charter authorizers who are responsible for holding those charters accountable.” But the charter authorizer system is a chaotic patchwork, and varies state by state. Washington, D.C., has a single authorizer, appointed by the mayor. The state of Ohio has hundreds of authorizers. “Those questions are being dealt with on a state and local level, not nationally,” Hyslop says.
Even if charter schools succeed in satisfying the criteria of church-state separation, a broader problem remains unaddressed: It isn’t hard to imagine a future in which a small number of extremely wealthy individuals control large parts of America’s system of public education. Is it wise for any society to entrust the education of its children to such an unrepresentative group with such distinct interests and beliefs?
To be sure, charter operators have a right to their religious and political beliefs and opinions, and the presence of such viewpoints does not necessarily mean that their schools will be infused with those beliefs. There are many charter advocates who have no ideological agenda beyond delivering a quality education to America’s children, and who are dedicated to equity and transparency. Many argue passionately and persuasively about the importance of creating a diverse education ecosystem.
From the perspective of DeVos and her allies, however, these earnest charter supporters must surely look like useful idiots. Which brings us to the deceptive nature of DeVos’s doctrine of “choice.” Public education came into existence to serve the common good. It is open to all and held to meaningful standards; that is why taxpayers support it. Choice can have a useful role to play. But reducing public education to a consumer experience for parents, and allowing them to “choose” to funnel taxpayer money into schools that discriminate, teach pseudoscience and fake history, and promote contempt for those who are different, isn’t a way to advance our system of education. It is really just a way to destroy public schools.