Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child, by Betsy DeVos (Center Street, 320 pp., $29)
If there has been a federal education official more unjustifiably vilified than former U.S. Education secretary Betsy DeVos, I don’t know who it would be. From her difficult confirmation hearings to her resignation in January 2021, critics cast her as an enemy of public schools, a bigot, a tool for corporate takeover of public education, and an opponent of civil rights. On her second day in office, she went to visit a Washington, D.C. public school to “show her support for public education.” Instead of welcoming her and proudly showing off their program, the school’s leadership—or the local teachers’ union—organized a raucous demonstration to show her that she was not welcome. To drive home their point, they invited the local media to witness and report on the confrontation. As the threats got more physical, DeVos’s undermanned security team rushed her away. Against their advice, she insisted on returning and entering the school through a side door.
Now it is DeVos’s turn to tell her story and to share her long history of advocacy and philanthropy for the most educationally needy student. The result is this compelling book. DeVos understood fully by the time of that first public school visit in 2017 that the battle had been joined. “The problem is that the education establishment—led by school union bosses—didn’t want to let me in the door. It was going to be a long four years.”
Her opponents and detractors failed to understand a few fundamental things about DeVos. First, her life’s work has been grounded in her deep religious faith. It’s not the finger-wagging “thou shalt not” caricature of religiosity that her detractors tried to pin on her. Rather, “My faith teaches me that every man and woman is uniquely created and worthy of love and respect. I’ve always believed that in a free, multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic country like the United States, the best way to live together begins with inherent worth. If we respect and honor each other, we can live together without one-size-fits-all requirements from Washington.” Much is wrapped up in that statement: the uniqueness of each person; the implication that schools must respect and respond to that uniqueness; the emphasis on localism and federalism; and, always, the need for avoiding disrespectful and hateful rhetoric in the public square. In DeVos’s faith tradition, in mine, and in that of many others, it is understood that we are all sinners but that we are also capable of rising higher. Would that some of the more strident culture warriors of 2022—those who would, in effect, burn down our schools to save them, or who insist that their vision of social justice be presented in every school—would adopt her philosophy about public debate and the need for personalized and varied educations. The problems prevalent in education today are only insurmountable when viewed from Washington. Most can be solved locally in respectful and productive ways.
The second thing DeVos’s critics missed is that she is dammed stubborn. Perhaps it’s a characteristic of her Dutch background. Or maybe it’s her upbringing in a working-class family that found wealth only in the later years of her father’s business career. Or it’s because she had to work the night shift in the family factory over high school summers, so that she might learn the value and honor of labor. Whatever the source of her character, she is not a person deterred by defeat. After setbacks, she—along with her husband and partner in philanthropy, Dick DeVos—take stock of lessons learned and move on to the next battle.
For 30 years prior to becoming secretary of education, DeVos supported school choice, especially for those least well served by the one-size-fits-all approach of most traditional public schools. The DeVoses invested their personal wealth in this cause, got involved in state-level politics, and built a multistate network of organizations pursuing an agenda of choice and freedom. They worked with civil rights advocates in Wisconsin and Michigan and against suburban Republican legislators content with the quality of their public schools. All this was done at the state and local level, working with parents and with schools of all types. Yet, despite all this work, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren would tell DeVos, “there is no precedent for an Education Department Secretary with your lack of experience in public education.” Warren was wrong. Ten Education secretaries preceded DeVos; only three had ever taught in a public school.
The true threat DeVos posed to the Washington education “blob” was her commitment to localism, pluralism, and federalism in educational matters and her belief that parents should be the ultimate arbiters of how and where their children are educated. These values are anathema to Washington’s self-appointed mandarins and the self-serving national teachers’ unions, which are more interested in pressing their influence in Washington than in fighting for better schools state by state.
DeVos’s book offers an important antidote to the craziness of the past few years: educational diversity, or pluralism; educational freedom for families; and local control, including the abolition of the Department of Education. Her book offers many more valuable stories than can be recounted here. Good-willed people of all political persuasions would be wise to read it with an open mind.
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