FREEDOM TO LEARN: An Interview With Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Published: July 7, 2022
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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.