Last week during a speech at Hillsdale College, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pointed to the Dutch tradition of education and reforms enacted by 19th Century theologian turned prime minister Abraham Kuyper.
“As for me, I fight for America’s students. I fight for their parents. And I fight against anyone who would have government be the parent to everyone,” she said. “Many in Washington think that because of their power there, they can make decisions for parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home, the child becomes a pawn, and the state replaces the family.”
DeVos noted that this “sequence” had played out throughout history, including in the Netherlands, where her family has roots.
“For a time, parents in Holland raised their children according to their customs and their beliefs with little ‘supervision’ from the government or its schools. But the French Revolution brought with it the idea of a one-size-fits-all school ‘system,’ one that the Dutch were arguably too quick to adopt. Over time, the view that education was a responsibility of government—not of parents—grew to prevail among Dutch elites. Independent schools were illegal. Parents had no options and no hope,” she said.
But that turned around under the leadership of Kuyper, DeVos said.
“This pastor turned politician became a rousing voice for parents who were not happy with their government—one which ‘claimed the right to set up the school for all children.’ A system that Kuyper said ‘summons [their] children from [their] homes yet increasingly erases every distinctive feature of families’ and ‘provides uniform guidance to every child,'” she stated.
“Kuyper asserted that the way forward was to separate education from partisan politics. He said that ‘the family, the business, science, art, and so forth are all social spheres which do not owe their existence to the state and which do not derive the law of their life from the state.’ And so, Kuyper argued, ‘the state cannot intrude [into these spheres] and has nothing to command in their domain,'” DeVos added. “He was very clear: the education of children is within the family’s sphere, so parents are ‘called’ to ‘determine the choice of school’ for their children.”
She said to fix education for children in America; we should “go Dutch.”
“That means we embrace the family as the sovereign sphere that it is. A sphere that predates government altogether. It’s been said, after all, that the family is not only an institution; it’s also the foundation for all other institutions. The nuclear family cultivates art, athletics, business, education, faith, music, film—in a word, culture. And just as the family shapes its culture, it also shapes its government,” DeVos said.
“That truth is contained in our Founding. Here, ‘We the People’ govern. Because we know what’s best for ourselves, and for our children. And we consent to a government that exercises only those duties we delegate to it,” she added. “Our schools exist because we pay for them. So, we should be empowered to spend our education dollars our way on our kids.”
“I like to picture kids with their backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn. In this sense, public and private schools alike don’t exist to supplant parents; they exist to supplement them,” DeVos explained.
She explained that the U.S. Department of Education does not exist to help kids but protect the system.
“I assume most of you have never stepped foot inside the U.S. Department of Education. And I can report, you haven’t missed much,” DeVos stated. “These past few years I’ve gotten a close-up view of what that building focuses on. And let me tell you, it’s not on students.”
“It’s on rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting ‘the system.’ Forty years later, taxpayers have spent more than one trillion dollars at the Federal level alone trying to ‘fix’ K-12 education. The ‘results’ speak for themselves. Just open up the Nation’s Report Card, and you’ll see what I mean,” she added.
DeVos later claimed that the Trump Administration “restored state, local, and family control of education by faithfully implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, by ending Common Core, and by urging Congress to put an end to education earmarks by consolidating nearly all Federal K-12 programs into one block grant.”
The Race to the Top grant program no longer exists, and most states have rebranded their Common Core English-language arts and math standards or tweaked them. Common Core was never “ended.”
States still do not have control when they still must seek federal approval for their state accountability plan.
To be fair to the Trump Administration, the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed and signed into law under the Obama Administration. It does provide states with more flexibility than they had before.
However, it is a far cry from “restoring” state and local control.
Congress has yet to consolidate K-12 education spending.
The Trump Administration has used its executive authority, however, to roll back the Obama Administration’s encroachment into K-12 education through their “Dear Colleague” letters.
DeVos noted that the Trump Administration has uplifted religious liberty and stood against the Blaine Amendment, a relic of anti-Catholic bigotry from the 1870s, in court.
She highlighted several modest school choice initiatives the Trump Administration supports and the failure of schools to teach civics to an upcoming generation.
At the end of her speech, DeVos circled back to the importance of the family.
“So, instead of canceling the culture, let’s answer Kuyper’s call to challenge the culture—with education. Instead of rewriting our Constitution, let’s return to its timeless words and restore the power of ‘We the People.’ Because we don’t believe in retreat. We believe in redemption,” she said. “Let’s begin by reasserting this fundamental truth: the family is the ‘first school.’ If we recognize that, then we must also reorder everything about education around what the family wants and what the family needs.”
“Make no mistake: America cannot win the future if we lose the rising generation. If we get the family and its freedom right, everything else that’s wrong about our culture will right itself. Rebuild the family, restore its power, and we will reclaim everything right about America and us,” DeVos concluded.