Perhaps no other time in American history more clearly demonstrates the truth behind H.G. Well’s famous quote, “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.” Across this country, debate over America’s founding and future are being played out in American classrooms, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
There is no debate, however, about the downward spiraling of America’s public school system. And if presentiment of colossal failure in those schools did not predate the pandemic, there was no denying the facts afterward.
In her new book, Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos outlines that failure and presents remedies to reverse the damage. As Education Secretary in the Trump administration for four years, Secretary DeVos drew on her many decades of advocacy to fight for education freedom for students of all ages. To that end, she helped create new educational choices for K-12 students in more than 25 states and the District of Columbia.
A native of Holland, Michigan, where she currently resides, DeVos served as chairman of The Windquest Group, and as former chair of the American Federation for Children, The Philanthropy Roundtable, and the Michigan Republican Party. Together with husband Dick DeVos, they have four children and 10 grandchildren.
In an exclusive interview with Hamodia, we spoke of the issues facing American students today, including yeshivos and private schools, and how policies that benefit students first are the only ones that will successfully endure. In your new book, your introduction details growing up religious in Michigan, your family’s roots in the Netherlands, your entrepreneur engineer father and stay-at-home mother. You wrote of your parents taking you to Holland when you were young and meeting relatives who hid Jews during the Holocaust. Was their story recorded?
I don’t think so. They were actually a great-aunt and a great-uncle, very quiet people, and they only shared those stories in later years. I remember going with my family as a young teenager and meeting them and seeing the bakery and the room where they had hidden the Jews behind flour sacks. Then my husband and I took our children when they were young to meet them. It was a great experience for multiple generations. It made me very proud to hear about that from them and to know that was part of my family.
Congratulations on your book. Can you share why you wrote it and what you think readers will take from it?
I wrote it because the last two years have really laid bare a system and the failings of a system. I have realized [these failings] for more than three decades of working to try and change policy to empower families. Absent the pandemic, I probably wouldn’t have written a book. But I think it has brought about such an opportune time to build on the frustrations that families have had, to change policy and support parents directing their kids’ education. It’s really an attempt to talk about how we fix American education.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s win reflected that frustration and was a win for parents’ pushback against government encroachment in their children’s education. Do you think this trend will continue?
I think it will. And I intend to continue being part of ensuring that it does, along with courageous governors and legislators across the country and increasingly courageous and properly thinking elected officials at the federal level. Depending on the administration, parents see how the federal Department of Education has continued to overreach and take away many of the freedoms and the latitude from local districts, states, and the most local unit — the family. It has perpetuated a system that has been failing way too many kids, and it has arguably failed even more than we ever thought, given the experience of the last two years.
In your book you detail the abysmal decline in student achievement in public schools even before the last two years. Studies now expose the devastating effects of lockdowns and masks on children and the hypocrisy of teachers unions and federal officials. Do you think those responsible will ever be held culpable?
I think we can hold them responsible. And they reap the consequences when we give families the freedom to direct the dollars that are already spent on their kids and begin to choose alternatives. We’ve already seen it during the pandemic, with well over a million kids disappearing from the traditional public system. And the home-schooling numbers, among those that have been reported, more than doubled overall and among black families quintupled.
People who have been able to figure out an alternative have begun to vote with their feet. And we need to pass policies that will continue to support their choice and support others who want to make that decision. When the traditional system loses students, and when they fail to respond and make the kind of changes that they need to make, they’ll pay the price.
During your years as Secretary of Education, what accomplishment are you most proud of and what aspirations may have gone unfinished?
I think the overarching success is based on the notion that education is about students and orienting everything that we did — all the changes and improvements we made — to be oriented around students. Also, drawing attention to this notion at the federal level, which has most often not been the case. It’s been about adult issues, the status quo, all the allies of the school unions getting their demands met. We reoriented all of that and deregulated in every area we possibly could to end the overreach from the federal level.
Our rule-making on Title IX was the most consequential of the work that we did from the holistic perspective because it impacts students at every grade level and higher education. And we reasserted the rights of religious schools to be true to their mission in a way that really solidified and secured the notion that that mission is over and above what government tries to demand. Everybody should be able to practice their faith in their education settings if that’s how and where they choose to do so.
The thing that I regret is that we did not get the federal tax credit passed that would provide rocket fuel to the states that are changing policy to empower families at the K-12 level. But I have a lot of optimism that it is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when. I think that reality has come much closer to being accomplished based on people’s experiences the last two years.
In that vein, GOP lawmakers recently introduced the Educational Choice for Children Act, which proposes having corporations or individuals make tax-exempt charitable donations, amounting to $10 billion on an annual basis, to fund scholarship awards for children attending private schools. Do you see this as being built on what you started?
Yes, it’s actually very similar to the bill we introduced during the last administration. It would not construct another program at the federal level. It’s merely a mechanism via the Department of Treasury for individual and corporate tax payers to redirect a portion of their federal tax bill into scholarship-granting organizations at various state levels to benefit the students. There can be a whole range of opportunities that those programs could help fund and encourage.
In a recent interview, you discussed your resignation after the January 6 riots in protest of President Trump’s position and seem to blame the aftermath as having “put roadblocks in the way of doing any major additional work.” Can you talk about that?
Following the election, there was a lot of debate going on about the second COVID relief package and there was a real opportunity to get the scholarship program or at least a portion of it into that bill. But there was a lot of distraction at the White House around what they should push on, in addition to distraction internally. That certainly didn’t help accomplish this goal of really serving students. So that was a frustration for sure.
Is that the reason you resigned?
No. On January 6, I watched with horror what was happening and I thought about it from the perspective of kids who would be seeing this. I just felt the President should have done more to stop what was going on, to urge people to come back and sort of settle down. But he didn’t say enough, fast enough. So that was kind of the edge of the precipice for me.
If that was the edge, were there other situations you didn’t approve of?
First of all, I had a very good working relationship with President Trump, and I really appreciate all the latitude that he and the administration gave me and my team for carrying out his policy agenda. That was really what attracted me and led me to agree to serve in the role. Trump was the first presidential candidate and then President who openly called for education freedom or school choice. That was a great opportunity from my perspective. Sure, there were lots of different things — some things made it tougher and some things made it easier. I do elaborate on some of those in the book.
Orthodox Jewish families across America face staggering tuition costs for private yeshivos and day schools and, for them, public school is not an option. How would you suggest alleviating this burden?
My School Choice Now proposal, which was introduced in both chambers of Congress while I was Secretary of Education, was a tax credit scholarship proposal that would have given students vouchers to attend the private school of their choosing. For example, Florida is a state that is very school-choice friendly and already has in place a tax credit scholarship that allows families to use scholarship money to attend a private religious school.
I want every student across the country to be able to use the money that the government already spends on their education to be able to take that money to whatever school they wish to attend, including religiously affiliated schools.
Earlier you spoke of advocating for freedom of religion in schools. Are you aware of New York State’s proposed substantial equivalency regulations that seek state control to interfere in the management of yeshivos and private schools?
I am familiar with the effort to do that. As I understand, it was a state initiative. My perspective is that it was a dramatic overreach of the state of New York, and my hope is that the yeshivos will ultimately prevail in the debate.
If parents succeed in wresting control from the teachers union and school boards and place it back in their own hands, they still have to contend with children being exposed to daily indoctrination from woke media, social media, corporations, advertisements, etc. How do they counter that?
It’s a challenge, for sure. First of all, I think the opportunity for families to direct their children’s educational experiences takes a big bite out of that time spent on that indoctrination that they wouldn’t have had if their kids are in an assigned public school all day, every day. And so many families have awakened to what has been going on in their kids’ schools and learning experiences that they had no idea of before. I think that’s a good thing because it will help hasten the policy change that we so thoroughly need.
But, obviously, it’s a broad question for every family to deal with — how you encourage your child to learn how to live in the world but not to bend to every one of the ways of the world. As Christian parents, that’s something that we’ve long struggled with and debated about too.
It’s worse after K-12. It used to be that college graduates shed many college-fed leftist notions after entering the workforce, like the famous adage: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain.” But now these graduates are entering a workforce with corporations and businesses largely reinforcing and even amplifying progressive dogma. What are they to do?
I am dismayed to see how many have bent to that agenda. And I am also heartened to see some glimmers of light where some are beginning to push back. This is clearly a debate for this time, and one that I’m very hopeful that, in the businesses in which we have influence, we’ll be able to push back against.
Frankly, we have to go back to where the seed of this is and that is the education experience — what students are and aren’t learning. We can definitely argue that they are not learning how to debate and confront ideas in a way that is sharpening them. Many of them are just regurgitating what they heard and learned over their K-12 and then higher education experience.
You talk about debate, but today’s cancel culture stifles debate and engenders a lack of freedom among students and teachers, especially at the college level. How do you address this?
Students really need to weigh the value of taking on student debt and paying for a college experience that’s going to shut them down instead of expand and broaden their mind and their ability to argue their perspectives, even before they form their perspectives and have them tested. I think that the last two years have helped bring many more questions to the minds of prospective higher-education students as well as their parents. They’re asking, what is the value here, and is it worthy of pursuit?
In that vein, we really try to stress and enhance the opportunities for young people to consider paths past high school — other than four-year college — as being very viable and equally respected. We haven’t done a good enough job at that as a culture and society to say all of these different paths and opportunities are important and everybody should find what they are really excited about doing and [then decide] how they want to invest their energies and talents as young adults.
The biggest losers at universities today seem to be Jews, with many American universities turning into hotbeds of anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric and policy. The Harvard Crimson’s embrace of BDS is a recent example, and CUNY went from being a mainstay of Jewish students and professors to one of the most hostile antisemitic environments. How would you explain how Jews became the only minority that has not gained victim status in identity politics?
Well, I think that’s a very good question. When I have opportunity to raise that, I certainly will, because it is really appalling to hear some of the things that are happening at the higher education level to Jewish students. I know that we were very intentional about making every move that we could to protect from antisemitism. This is a huge concern not only for Jews but for those who want to see every student, no matter their faith and background, have the opportunity to pursue their education in an environment that is not going to discriminate against them or degrade them.
Thank you for your defense. Finally, do you have any future political aspirations?
My political aspiration is to continue to stir the pot to get policy change for education freedom. I will continue to work with everyone who is pulling in that direction and help in whatever way I can to get that accomplished.