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Acton Institute interview with Betsy DeVos on her new book that promotes an ideological agenda that hides behind buzzwords like School Choice

June 24, 2022

Former US Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has a book out. The book is entitled, Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child. 

Just a few days ago, the far right Think Tank, the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute, interviewed DeVos about her new book. The interview is worth listening to, even though the Acton podcast host couldn’t contain himself with his glee in interviewing Betsy. I say it’s worth listening to, since I believe that those of us who oppose the likes of Betsy DeVos, need to familiarize ourselves with the arguments and ideological principles that she embraces. If people just plainly reject something, without understanding it, that is not only intellectually inadequate, their rejection might also be based on faulty assumptions, which often leads to faulty responses.

After listening to the interview that the Acton Institute conducted with Betsy DeVos and after reading much of her new book, here are some of my overall responses.

First, DeVos believes that the US public education system is in deep trouble. I agree. The system of public education in the US is deeply dysfunctional and quite often perpetuates harm. I know this from my own experience of going through the K-12 public school system, along with my own critical reading of its history and the work that I have done with groups like Grand Rapids for Education Justice (GREJ). While working with GREJ, we determined that there is a two-tiered school system within the Grand Rapids Public Schools, where a smaller number of students get preferential treatment, while the bulk of GRPS students have limited resources, so much so that the GRPS is content to just graduate them, but not provide them with the necessary tools to be fully human and to fully participate in this society. The difference between groups that want to improve public education and people like Betsy DeVos, is that she wants to fundamentally alter public education, if not dismantle it. In fact, much of the two tiered system with the GRPS, is in part due to the influence that Betsy DeVos and other members of her family have had in that system, particularly the former Superintendent. Also, see our 3 part series entitled, Betsy DeVos and the Covert Privatization of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Second, Betsy DeVos regularly uses – in her book and during her 30-year commitment to undermining public education – buzzwords and phrases that are often unsubstantiated. For instance, DeVos will say that the biggest roadblock to education reforms are the teacher unions. This primarily is driven by the fact that DeVos and other members of the Capitalist Class despise organized labor. In fact, teacher unions are one of the only reasons why public schools have not already been dismantled in the US. Other phrases that Betsy uses regularly are “government runs schools,” that the “public school curriculum teaches students to hate the country,” and that public education offers no “school choice.” DeVos then uses personal stories to support such claims, stories that are nice and all, but never back up with hard data. In addition, the phrases she uses, to the extent that they are even remotely true, are due to the fact that she and the anti-Public Education network she has helped to create over the past few decades, has been somewhat effective in their efforts.

Third, in the Acton Interview and further explored in her book, DeVos takes aim at certain issues around public education that she uses to attack them. The pandemic has been a great opportunity to attack public schools and teacher’s unions, in part because of how school systems dealt with school closings and masking policies. DeVos claims that parents have become more involved in their children’s schools, which is true, but DeVos fails to mention that this attack of public education has been primarily orchestrated by certain groups that are also part of the anti-Public Education network across the US. For example, parents in Kent County came to school board meetings and government meetings to rage against the system, but this didn’t happen in a vacuum. 

Fourth, the claim that public school curriculum teaches US students to hate the country, is not only ridiculous, it is unfounded. Betsy DeVos claims that the US Constitution is unique and that American Democracy is the best form of government on the planet. To the degree that teachers get students to critically assess such claims and to look at US history through a critical lens, is not teaching students to hate the US, it is teaching students important critical thinking skills. A Betsy DeVos funded and created entity, known as the Michigan Freedom Fund, has railed against Critical Race Theory over the past years, as has the anti-Public Education Network across the country. In addition, while Betsy DeVos claims to celebrate the US Constitution, she and her family have been providing millions in funding to the National Constitution Center, which her brother Doug DeVos is a board member of. The National Constitution Center has its own version of celebrating the US Constitution, one that ultimately protects power, especially from an increasingly organized public.  

Fifth, the former US Secretary of Education spends a whole chapter in her book talking about an idea she created years ago, which she re-packaged while in the Trump Administration, known as Education Freedom Scholarship. This was essentially code for school vouchers, but DeVos and the people around her were smart enough to re-brand it using the word freedom. DeVos announced this program in March of 2019, and has continued to push for it around the country, but particularly in Michigan. The revised language for the campaign to use public money for private and charter schools, is called Let MI Kids Learn.  To date, it is yet to be determined if this effort will get enough signatures to put it on the November 2022 Ballot. 

Lastly, Betsy DeVos claims to be a proponent of free speech, particularly on college campuses. However, her idea of protecting free speech is driven by her desire to protect the speech of those she agrees with, which is primarily those who side with power. However, Betsy DeVos’s claim that she support freedom of speech on college campuses, hold no water, especially when looks at what she said at a speech she gave at Hiilsdale College in October of 2020. DeVos spoke about the evils of socialism, stating:

Too many today—especially among our rising generation—don’t seem to understand the dangers of such a view. They somehow have come to believe that socialism is the cure, not the deadly disease it really is. Tragically, it’s because no one has taught them differently. And worse, some have been indoctrinated to believe not in themselves, but in government.

Betsy then goes on to say: 

So, the unholy mob thinks our economies need redistributing. It thinks our Constitution needs rewriting. It thinks our families need restructuring. One prominent group was explicit about its desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” That’s taken right from the old Marxist playbook. It admits the goal is to “[do] away with private property and [educate] children on a communal basis, and in this way [remove] the two bases of traditional marriage.”

DeVos was a bit more candid about her views, considering this was a Hillsdale College audience, but also because she knew that the Trump Administration was on the verge of being defeated in the November 2020 Election. 

A day after the attempted coup by Trump supporters in 2021, Betsy DeVos formerly resigned from her position as Secretary of Education. We wrote about her letter of resignation, and stated in part:

The fact that DeVos is trying to distance herself from what happened at the US Capitol on Wednesday is also a desperate attempt to deflect the fact that the DeVos family spent millions in the last four years to elect Republicans, many of which have encouraged the White Nationalist who attempted the coup, plus they contributed to Trump’s re-election in 2020.

Lastly, it is worth saying that Betsy’s resignation is just another attempt by those who have benefited from Trumpism to try to save face. The reality is that the resignation of Betsy DeVos was a cowardly act, in a long line of cowardly acts that she and the rest of the Capitalist Class have been committing for a very long time. 

In the end, Betsy DeVos will be using her book tour as another opportunity to mobilize people to join her in the fight against Public Education, just as she has done for the past 30 years. As I have said before, I have nothing but contempt for the likes of Betsy DeVos and her family, but it would be a serious mistake on our part to dismiss her as some sort of a nutcase. The DeVos family is indeed ruthless, but they are not stupid. 

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