Trump's Pick for Education Secretary Refuses to Disavow Teaching Intelligent Design in Public Schools
It's no secret Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is an influential conservative, a billionaire heiress, a powerful cheerleader and funder of the modern education privatization movement. But a little-noticed exchange during her confirmation hearing Tuesday provides new reason to be concerned that DeVos, if confirmed, could have a hand in destroying the quality of science education in public schools across the country. When pressed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), she refused to disavow the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.
In her book Edspeak, historian and education analyst Diane Ravitch describes intelligent design as a “concept holding that the origin of the universe was the work of an intelligent designer, not the result of natural selection, as posited in the theory of evolution." Federal courts have blocked local efforts to teach intelligent design in public schools on the grounds that such lessons constitute religious teachings and do not comport with scientific consensus.
During the hearing, Whitehouse said to DeVos: “You and your husband have contributed to Thomas More Law Center, touting itself as the sword and shield of people of faith, which has repeatedly promoted fake science, even going so far as to represent the Dover Area School District of Pennsylvania in a lawsuit over the adoption of a biology textbook including intelligent design.”
The senator was referring to a high-profile effort by the Thomas More Law Center to defend Dover schools’ decision to teach intelligent design before losing the case in 2005. “For years, a lawyer for the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan visited school boards around the country searching for one willing to challenge evolution by teaching intelligent design, and to face a risky, high-profile trial,” New York Times journalist Laurie Goodstein reported at the time.
Addressing DeVos, who has no significant experience in public education, Whitehouse added: “The S in STEM is for is science. If school districts around the country try to teach junk science, will the department of education be with the students or with the political entity trying to force the junk science into the science program?”
DeVos demurred. “I think it’s pretty clear that the expectation is that science is taught in public schools, and I support the teaching of great science, and especially science that allows students to exercise critical thinking and to really discover and examine in new ways,” she said. “And science is to be supported at all levels.”
The sidestep is troubling in light of the DeVos family history of directly supporting efforts to advance religious education. As Huffington Post reporter Rebecca Klein noted in November, Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, has gone on the record in support of incorporating intelligent design lessons into public education.
More than a decade ago, when he was campaigning during an unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan, he told the Associated Press, “I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory. That theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less.”
In September 2006, Dick DeVos wrote on the website for his gubernatorial campaign: “I've always believed that our children should be provided with more knowledge, not less. Lots of intelligent people can disagree about the origins of life. In the end, I believe in our system of local control. Local school boards should have the opportunity to offer evolution and intelligent design in their curriculums.”
Dick DeVos’ position on the issue is relevant because he and his wife run a well-heeled foundation that finances a gamut of conservative causes actively advancing religious education. In a 2001 interview with The Gathering, Betsy DeVos outlined her philanthropic philosophy, proclaiming: “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God's Kingdom.”
According to an analysis by Mother Jones reporter Kristina Rizga, between 1999 and 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation shelled out $8.6 million to private religious schools, including the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, the Ada Christian School and Holland Christian Schools. The foundation’s records “show an overwhelming emphasis on funding Christian schools, evangelical missions and conservative, free-market think tanks, like the Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center, that want to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education,” writes Rizga.
In addition, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation contributed $232,390 to the Foundation for Traditional Values between 1999 and 2014, Rizga determines. The institution manages education under the umbrella of Citizens for Traditional Values, which describes its goal as preserving “the influence of faith and family as the great foundation of American freedom embodied in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
DeVos has advanced faith-based education while at the helm of the corporate education reform movement. As former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, DeVos pressed for a failed ballot initiative in 2000 to amend the state constitution to allow students to use taxpayer dollars to attend nonpublic schools. She has long headed the American Federation for Children, described by Rachel Tabachnick of Political Research Associates as “the umbrella organization for two nonprofits that have been at the center of the pro-privatization movement for over a decade. In addition to the renamed Advocates for School Choice, it includes the Alliance for School Choice, formerly known as the Education Reform Council.”
Notably, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice.
In an interview conducted in 2013, DeVos indicated that her call for “school choice” is inspired by a 1955 article written by the libertarian economist Milton Friedman titled, “The Role of Government in Education.” In that article, Friedman stated that he is amenable to racial segregation in private schools.
DeVos hails from a powerful family dynasty that made its fortune through the Amway Corporation. Her family members include chairs of the Orlando Magic, as well as her brother, Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary company Blackwater that profited off of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos was introduced by Former Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), who serves on the board of the American Federation of Children. Lieberman heaped praise on DeVos, saying that she “is disciplined, organized, knows how to set goals and then develop practical plans to achieve them. She is really a purpose-driven team builder.” As David Halperin reported, Lieberman failed to disclose during the introduction that his law firm, Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, has represented Trump since 2001.