On Wednesday (November 23) President-elect Donald Trump announced Betsy DeVos as his pick for Secretary of Education. DeVos is a billionaire conservative activist whose name is well known among the higher echelons of the religious right. Her family has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the Michigan Family Forum (a state affiliate of the Christian fundamentalist organization Focus on the Family) and the Family the Research Council, which has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 1998 she founded the American Education Reform Foundation which was later renamed the American Federation for Children (AFC). The AFC is an advocacy organization whose stated purpose is to “empower parents, particularly those in low-income families, to choose the education they determine is best for their children.” Unfortunately, DeVos has used the AFC to push a crucial component of the religious right’s agenda: securing taxpayer dollars for private religious schools. AFC advocates for voucher programs that divert taxpayer money from public schools to private religious schools. These programs are marketed as offering a parents a choice to determine what school is best for their child but most private religious schools can legally discriminate against students on the basis of disability, religion, and sexual orientation. The end result is that voucher programs end up empowering private schools to educate the students of their choice, all at the taxpayer’s expense.
Beyond civil rights concerns, private school voucher programs are a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Under these programs, taxpayer dollars would be used to pay for religious instruction and junk science education, including the teaching of creationism. A 2014 special report by POLITICO explains:
“Decades of litigation have established that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design. But private schools receiving public subsidies can — and do. A POLITICO review of hundreds of pages of course outlines, textbooks and school websites found that many of these faith-based schools go beyond teaching the biblical story of the six days of creation as literal fact. Their course materials nurture disdain of the secular world, distrust of momentous discoveries and hostility toward mainstream scientists. They often distort basic facts about the scientific method — teaching, for instance, that theories such as evolution are by definition highly speculative because they haven’t been elevated to the status of “scientific law.””
Voucher programs have long been a pillar of the religious right’s agenda and the appointment of a voucher crusader like DeVos to Secretary of Education is an ominous indication of the influence they may wield in a Trump Administration. During Trump’s presidential campaign, he received an endorsement from the leader of nearly every religious right advocacy group. In exchange for evangelical votes, Trump adopted the religious right’s policy positions on a wide variety of issues, including supporting private school voucher programs. By selecting DeVos, and reportedly offering the position to Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr, the incoming Trump Administration intentionally might have gone out of it’s way to choose a candidate that would reward the religious right for their unwavering loyalty during the campaign. The concern is not only what DeVos’s selection will mean for education but the possibility that it signals the first of many political appointments made to appease the religious right. If it is, we will have many toughs fights ahead across a variety of issues and more than ever, we’ll need your support.