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.
School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.” The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend.
The audio from the private gathering, though 15 years old, offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of DeVos’ personal views — views that may guide her decision-making as the nation’s top education official. DeVos has repeatedly said she wants policies that give families choices about their children’s education — the choice of public schools included — but her critics fear that her goal is to shift public funding from already beleaguered traditional public schools to private and religious schools.
DeVos remains a harsh critic of the traditional education system, which she calls a “monopoly” and a “dead end.” But she said in the audio that she doesn’t want to destroy public education — only inject competition.
Dick and Betsy are not radical fundamentalist, ‘in the hills’ kind of people,” said Rev. Robert A. Sirico, head of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, who described himself as a close friend. “They’re not the kind of people who want to force their beliefs down anybody’s throat.”
DeVos’ spokesman referred questions to the Trump transition team, which did not respond to a request for comment.
The DeVos family are billionaires, but in the interview, Betsy DeVos said that rather than just give money to boost Christian schools, she’s fighting to change the whole system because there “aren’t enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education.”
Betsy DeVos also described her efforts, using the biblical term “Shephelah,” an area where battles — including between David and Goliath — were fought in the Old Testament.
“Our desire is to be in that Shephelah, and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory,” she said.
Those who know DeVos say her goals are not sinister — though they acknowledge the policies she’s likely to advance would benefit Christian schools. In fact, Trump’s $20 billion school choice program that would allow low-income students to select private or charter schools was devised with the help of the advocacy group DeVos headed until recently.
“What she wants to do is just make sure education is much more locally controlled,” said Sirico, who talked to DeVos about her “dreams generally” while celebrating Thanksgiving with her family. “That it’s sensitive to the localities, to the states, to the cities, to the families. That’s just going to naturally involve — at least in the great swath of flyover America — that’s going to involve religious education.”
Betsy DeVos has served on the board of directors of Sirico’s Acton Institute, which seeks to educate religious leaders of all denominations, business executives, entrepreneurs, university professors and academic researchers “in the connection that can exist between virtue and economic thinking,” according to the group’s website.
But the views expressed in the audio disturb advocates for the separation of church and state.
“It’s very alarming,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Boston’s group has referred to DeVos as a “four-star general in a deceptive behind-the-scenes war on public schools and church-state separation.”
“People support school vouchers for different reasons. Some make a free-market argument because they are opposed to public schooling. Others want to prop up sectarian teachings with taxpayer money,” Boston said. “DeVos has a foot in both camps, which does not bode well for our public schools.”
The audio of the 2001 interview was given to POLITICO by Bruce Wilson, who works for the LGBT rights nonprofit Truth Wins Out and has researched the “Gathering” conferences. The Devos family has a long history of supporting anti-gay causes — including donating hundreds of thousands to “Focus on the Family”, a conservative Christian organization that supports so-called conversion therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation.
During the DeVos interview, the couple talks about a trip to Israel where they learned about a geographical region, called the Shephelah, where battles were fought between the Israelites and Philistines. Betsy DeVos then links this topic to education.
“It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture — to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country,” she says.
Using an anecdote about pig remains found on archaeological digs in the Shephelah, the couple compares their work in education reform to the long-ago battles waged in that region. Pigs are not kosher, Dick DeVos says, so you could tell where the Jewish people influenced what the couple call “pagan” communities, because “the pig bones were gone.”
“We could run away and just go back up in the hills and live very safely and very comfortably — or are we going to exist in the Shephelah and try to impact the view of the community around us with the ideas we believe are more powerful ideas of a better way to live one’s life and a more meaningful and a more rewarding way to live one’s life as a Christian?” Dick DeVos says. “Our job is to figure out in the contemporary context — how do we get the pig bones out of our culture?”
In the decade-and-a-half since that interview, the DeVoses have poured millions into school choice efforts. Through a variety of DeVos-backed groups — including the American Federation for Children and All Children Matter — the couple made contributions to voucher-friendly state lawmakers and pushed statewide ballot measures for vouchers.
At this year’s American Federation for Children Policy Summit, Betsy DeVos boasted about the growing momentum for her “education revolution.”
“We are winning in state after state,” she said. “In the past six years, we’ve doubled the number of private school choice programs to 50, the number of private school choice states to 25, plus Washington, D.C., and doubled the number of students currently benefiting from private school choice to 400,000. All told, together, we’ve helped more than a million kids in private school choice programs, and we’re just getting started.”
The DeVoses say in the 2001 interview that they adhere to the Calvinist perspective of Christianity. Richard Israel, a professor of the Old Testament at Vanguard University in California, said Calvinists see it as the work of Christians to influence culture.
“Their view of the Christian mission isn’t to be in the fortress and hold out against the pagans, but to engage culture from a Christian worldview and transform it,” Israel said.
At one point in their interview, the Devoses are asked directly if they want to “destroy our public schools.”
“No, we are for good education, and for having every child have an opportunity for good education,” Betsy DeVos says.
“We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition — there were more choices for people to make freely — that all of the schools would become better as a result.”
However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.
“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.
“It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment — whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be — that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education,” he said. “We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities.”
When asked why they don’t just spend their time — and money — funding Christian schools, Betsy DeVos said they want to reform the whole system to bring “greater Kingdom gain.”
“We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had, and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases … not well spent.”