Betsy DeVos

Attention New York Times editors: There are private Christian colleges on religious left, as well

Attention New York Times editors: There are private Christian colleges on religious left, as well

When it comes to theology and doctrine, the world of higher education is a complex place.

For example, did you know that there are liberal Catholic colleges as well as conservative Catholic colleges? Then there are other schools that are left of center and right of center.

There are liberal Baptist colleges and universities and there are conservative Baptist options, as well. Once again, there are myriad options somewhere in the middle. Ditto for Lutheran schools. Ditto for schools with strong or weak ties to Presbyterian and Methodist thought.

At the same time, there are lots of private colleges and universities that are "secular," or, at the very least, free of any ties -- past or present -- to a specific religious tradition. Some are quite liberal, on matters of culture and morality, and a few are conservative.

So here is a tough question: How does the government relate to all of these private campuses? How does it relate to them, in terms of government funds and tax issues, without sliding into a kind of "viewpoint discrimination" that says secular intellectual content is acceptable and religious content is uniquely dangerous? Or even trickier, should "progressive" (or perhaps nearly nonexistent) religious intellectual content and doctrine be acceptable, while "orthodox" religious content is not?

Or how about this: Should the government strive to treat all private schools the same, no matter what kind of doctrine -- secular or religions, liberal of conservative -- defines life in these voluntary associations of believers or nonbelievers?

Now, I realize that this was quite an overture for a GetReligion post. Here is why I wrote it: There are some important voices and points of view missing in the New York Times story that ran with this headline: "DeVos Moves to Loosen Restrictions on Federal Aid to Religious Colleges." In addition to its focus on evangelical schools, this story really needed input from educational leaders on liberal religious campuses and even secular private campuses.

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Clarification please: Associated Press adds to confusion in private higher ed story (updated)

Clarification please: Associated Press adds to confusion in private higher ed story (updated)

This is not rocket science. (Or maybe it is? See update at the end of this piece.)

For a week or so, I have been watching to see if editors at the Associated Press were going to run a correction about a story about some fine print in the Republican tax bill. The headline on that story stated: "Senate votes to block special break for conservative college."

Note that the word "college" is singular.

That "fact" was at the heart of the debate, as shown in the overture for this hard-news story:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats ... successfully blocked a provision in the Republicans’ sweeping tax bill designed to give a special tax break to a conservative college in Michigan.
Democrats said the tax break was designed to help just one politically-connected school: Hillsdale College in southern Michigan.
“I can’t find anybody else in America who benefits from this particular provision. That doesn’t strike me as right,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, “It feels like this is a very limited provision written for a very special person.”

The key fact here is that Hillsdale College does not accept federal funds, including funds linked to scholarships and student aid. The basic idea is that government money will inevitably have strings attached. Thus:

The tax package would impose a new tax on investment income earned by some private universities and colleges. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., added a provision exempting certain colleges that don’t receive federal funds. Democrats said Hillsdale was the only college that would benefit.

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Surprise: The New York Times offers balanced look at Betsy DeVos' Christian high school

Surprise: The New York Times offers balanced look at Betsy DeVos' Christian high school

Life still surprises: Where I expected full-on Kellerism -- reporting in which certain "settled" matters are declared unworthy of balanced coverage -- The New York Times offered, well, some degree of balance when writing about a controversial public figure and the intersection of education and faith.

Journey with me now, gentle reader, to the western Michigan shores of Lake Macatawa, where we find the city of Holland and the alma mater of one Betsy Prince, who in 1975 graduated from Holland Christian High School.

As Betsy Prince, the now 59-year-old graduate might not attract much public attention, and certainly not for where she attended high school.

However, as Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, there's plenty of interest in such details. As shown in the video clip above, DeVos isn't always warmly embraced by her hearers and is a controversial figure.

Take it awayNew York Times:

The students formed a circle around the Rev. Ray Vanderlaan, who draped himself in a Jewish ceremonial prayer shawl to cap his final lesson to graduating seniors in his discipleship seminar at Holland Christian High School.
“We’re sending you out into a broken world, in part because of my generation,” the minister told the students. Referring to God, he exhorted them to “extend his kingdom.”

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In-depth NPR analysis of Indiana voucher program mostly gets education, but not religion

In-depth NPR analysis of Indiana voucher program mostly gets education, but not religion

Fifteen to 20 years ago, I was much better educated on school choice trends than I am now.

While covering public schools for The Oklahoman in 1999, I did a months-long special project — as part of an Education Writers Association national fellowship — titled "Winners & Losers: School Choice in Oklahoma City." I also covered the school voucher debate that still rages today.

Given my background — ancient as it may be — in education writing, I was interested in an in-depth package that NPR ran last week exploring "The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers" in Indiana.

At first blush, the NPR report struck me as tilted toward the anti-voucher side, partly because of the lede favoring a public school official:

Wendy Robinson wants to make one thing very clear.
As the long-serving superintendent of Fort Wayne public schools, Indiana's largest district, she is not afraid of competition from private schools.
"We've been talking choice in this community and in this school system for almost 40 years," Robinson says. Her downtown office sits in the shadow of the city's grand, Civil War-era Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. In Fort Wayne, a parking lot is the only thing that separates the beating heart of Catholic life from the brains of the city's public schools.
In fact, steeples dominate the skyline of the so-called City of Churches. Fort Wayne has long been a vibrant religious hub, home to more than 350 churches, many of which also run their own schools.
While the city's public and private schools managed, for decades, to co-exist amicably, that changed in 2011, Robinson says. That's when state lawmakers began the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, a plan to allow low-income students to use vouchers, paid for with public school dollars, to attend private, generally religious schools.
Six years later, Indiana's statewide voucher program is now the largest of its kind in the country and, with President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos openly encouraging states to embrace private school choice, the story of the Choice Scholarship — how it came to be, how it works and whom it serves — has become a national story of freedom, faith, poverty and politics.

That phrase "paid for with public school dollars" also hit me the wrong way. My question for NPR: Are those "public school dollars" or "taxpayer dollars?" If I'm a parent who pays taxes, why shouldn't I be able to choose where I want my education money to go — be it a public school or a public one?

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Why was DeVos fight so bitter? In this case the cultural warfare was totally logical

Why was DeVos fight so bitter? In this case the cultural warfare was totally logical

So how did Betsy DeVos end up being the wicked witch of the Calvinist Midwest?

That's one way of stating the main topic of this past week's "Crossroads" podcast, which was recorded a day later than normal for technical reasons. Click here to tune that in, please.

In addition to talking about the hammer and tongs warfare over the DeVos nomination to serve as Secretary of Education, host Todd Wilken and I also talked about the fact that the whole subject of alternative forms of education in America -- think charter schools, homeschooling, etc. -- is not something that breaks down into easy left vs. right categories, when it comes to politics and religion. Click here to see my earlier post on that.

But the key to the DeVos war was that there was really nothing unusual about it, for reasons that Ross Douthat explained in a column for The New York Times. The bottom line was the bottom line: It is hard to name a culture wars army that provides more muscle and campaign funding to the modern Democratic Party than the public educational elites and the unions that serve them. We are talking about millions and millions of dollars, year after year after year.

Here is Douthat, who as always is guilty of linear, logical thinking:

... Somehow it was DeVos who became, in the parlance of cable-news crawls, Trump’s “most controversial nominee.” Never mind that Trump’s logorrheic nationalism barely has time for education. Never mind that local control of schools makes the Education Department a pretty weak player. Never mind that Republican views on education policy are much closer to the expert consensus than they are on, say, climate change. Never mind that the bulk of DeVos’s school-choice work places her only somewhat to the right of the Obama administration’s pro-charter-school positioning, close to centrist Democrats like Senator Cory Booker. None of that mattered: Against her and (so far) only her, Democrats went to the barricades, and even dragged a couple of wavering Republicans along with them.
DeVos did look unprepared and even foolish at times during her confirmation hearings, and she lacks the usual government experience. But officially the opposition claimed to be all about hardheaded policy empiricism. A limited and heavily regulated charter school program is one thing, the argument went, but DeVos’s zeal for free markets would gut public education and turn kids over to the not-so-tender mercies of unqualified bottom-liners.

DeVos is the living symbol of everything the educational establishment hates, a woman with zero personal ties to public schools and years of experience in fighting for alternatives -- especially for the poor and those caught in substandard urban school zones. As I noted in the podcast, of course Democrats went to the mattresses to stop her from becoming secretary of education. Her nomination was something like proposing Elton John as the next leader of Focus on the Family.

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Information behind DeVos irony: NBC News discovers that liberal homeschoolers do exist

Information behind DeVos irony: NBC News discovers that liberal homeschoolers do exist

Back in the days of intense Harry Potter warfare, I wrote an "On Religion" column in which a very articulate mother explained why she was seriously considering homeschooling her child.

First of all, she said it was clear that her local public schools didn't take religion all that seriously. A kind of watered-down faith was OK, but she was sure that her family's intense religious beliefs and traditions would clash with the culture in nearby schools. She didn't want to have to compromise her family's beliefs in order to fit in.

Then there those omnipresent books about a certain young wizard. She told me: 

"The whole Harry Potter thing has just taken off and glamorized everything. It makes it seem like all of this is about spells and magic. ... It can be hard to get children to remember that what we're about is faith and spirituality. ... Many pagan parents consider Harry Potter a mixed blessing."

This mother, you see, was part of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the author of a book called "Pagan Parenting." And she was preparing for life as a homeschooling mom.

I thought about this anecdote when I read the NBCNews.com piece that ran with this headline: "DeVos Backlash Sees Parents Threatening to Homeschool Kids."

All kinds of people were passing this URL around online, laughing at the irony of that statement. However, it quickly became clear that reporter Jon Schuppe not only saw the irony, but understood it. Here is the overture on this surprisingly nuanced piece: 

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Reporting Betsy DeVos: Journalists can't seem to get a handle on details of her faith

Reporting Betsy DeVos: Journalists can't seem to get a handle on details of her faith

Betsy DeVos, who President Donald Trump has nominated to be education secretary, will be voted on Tuesday by a Senate committee. She has never been a household word in America and neither have her Calvinist roots, which have been tripping journalists up ever since she was nominated. 

Can this woman, who’s been an advocate of private Christian education and who’s never attended public school (nor have her children), be the new education secretary? A lot of people think not, including 700 students and alumni at Calvin College, her alma mater, according to this Washington Post piece. Others point out that former President Barack Obama never attended public school, either. 

In 2013, Philanthropy Roundtable interviewed her about school reform in a piece that didn’t mention Calvinism or her faith at all. But once she was nominated, everyone was suddenly intensely curious about her beliefs.

Is it true that she wants America’s schools to build “God’s kingdom,” as alleged in a Mother Jones piece? Or is the general media hyperventilating about DeVos’s 15-year-old comments, as our own Bobby Ross asked in December regarding a piece in Politico? 

Politico has circled back to write more on DeVos and even claims some expertise on the nominee as evidenced by the presence of one of its reporters on this talk show. But they've got some major blind spots as to any decent qualities this woman might have. Even the New York Times is saying that she's been sympathetic to gay marriage all along -- a factoid that Politico completely missed.

So, let’s turn to this lengthy profile which has the headline “How Betsy DeVos used God and Amway to take over Michigan politics.”

On election night 2006, Dick DeVos, the bronzed, starched 51-year-old scion of Michigan’s wealthiest family, paced to a lectern in the dim ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Lansing to deliver the speech that every candidate dreads.
The Michigan gubernatorial race that year had been a dogfight of personal attacks between DeVos, the Republican nominee, and Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. Gloomy, bleached-out b-roll of shuttered factories in anti-Granholm ads made the governor’s sunny economic promise that “You’re gonna be blown away” sound less like an aspiration than a threat. Anti-DeVos ads cut closer to the bone, with one depicting a cartoon DeVos cheering a freighter hauling Michigan jobs to China. It was an unsubtle reference to DeVos’ time as president of Amway, the direct-sales behemoth his family co-founded and co-owns, when he eliminated jobs in Michigan while expanding dramatically in Asia. DeVos ended up personally spending $35 million on the race—the most expensive campaign in Michigan history—and when the votes came in, lost by a crushing 14 points.

Then it zeroes in on the wife.

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Donald Trump's cabinet: Are his choices merely a list of evangelical deplorables?

Donald Trump's cabinet: Are his choices merely a list of evangelical deplorables?

OK. I get that for lots of people, Donald Trump’s cabinet picks seem like a freak show line-up.

But can we at least try to maintain a little bit of journalistic objectivity when we describe these folks? Yes, this is a debate that's raging all over the place right now. Just ask New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. And remember the Fixer-Upper couple bouhaha that BuzzFeed tried to ignite two weeks ago (which I wrote about) that blamed the two home remodelers for the views of their pastor? 

Lots of folks condemned that sort of damned-by-association style of journalism. In this latest wrap-up of Trump’s cabinet, I see it again in this RNS story.

(RNS) An education secretary who supports school vouchers to get more children into private religious schools. A White House strategist whose ex-wife accused him of anti-Semitism. A national security adviser who called Islam “a political ideology hiding behind a religion.”
After a campaign in which President-elect Donald Trump was accused of trafficking in bigotry and hatred, and of changing his views to win the conservative religious vote, he is choosing Cabinet members who have made controversial statements on religious and ethical issues.

I get the second half of the sentence, but was the first part (on “bigotry and hatred”) necessary? Yes, it is a statement of fact about attacks by Trump critics on the left and right, but still. The article then goes on to list several cabinet nominees:

Pruitt is a member of First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., where he has served as a deacon. First Baptist is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has opposed marriage equality, reproductive rights for women and LGBTQ rights, including bathroom access for transgender people.

My goodness, are these people villains or what? The Southern Baptists also took a strong stand against racism, for refugees and repudiated the Confederate flag at their June meeting. I guess that wasn’t good enough.

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Oh, Politico! We're not laughing with you, but at you, after that 'advance God's Kingdom' scoop

Oh, Politico! We're not laughing with you, but at you, after that 'advance God's Kingdom' scoop

Hey, remember after Donald Trump's stunning election victory when some navel-gazing media types contemplated their cluelessness.

Good times.

But that didn't last long, huh?

Which brings us to Politico's laugh-out-loud "scoop" featuring 15-year-old quotes from President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Education Department:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom."
Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.
Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed.
In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

Wow, talk about an insightful piece of "gotcha" journalism! (Sarcasm intended.)

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the former GetReligionista, couldn't resist commenting on the Politico story:

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