Jonathan Lange: Family is the first school says Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos

in Column/Jonathan Lange

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By Jonathan Lange, guest columnist

Before entering the pulpit, I was certified as a teacher both in Illinois and in Nebraska. Teacher training inculcated the principle that teachers are “in loco parentis,” that is, in the place of parents. Teaching is an extension of the home, not a replacement of it. 

While myriad faithful teachers work with parents in wholesome cooperation, too often evil cultural forces co-opt the classroom to undermine parental values. The Bible is mocked. The family is undermined. America’s worldview, oriented toward a transcendent God, is replaced by a worldview where random chance creates nothing of meaning, goodness or purpose.

Recently, Betsy DeVos, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education identified the French Revolution as the source of these cultural forces. It spawned the “view that education was a responsibility of government – not of parents.” Her recent speech at Hillsdale College got my attention.

“Let’s begin by reasserting this fundamental truth: the family is the ‘first school,’” said DeVos. “Many in Washington think that, because of their power there, they can make decisions for parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home, the child becomes a pawn, and the state replaces the family.” 

In Washington, money is power—and the Department of Education controls $68 billion annually. Since its inception in 1980, it has spent over a trillion dollars of taxpayer money. By distributing money with strings, it drowns out the educational choices of parents in favor of multinational corporations and special interests, politicians and unions.

That inversion of priorities is what she wants to change. “When I took on this role, I said from day one that I’d like to work myself out of a job,” DeVos said. That means empowering parents, not politicians. “Our schools exist because we pay for them,” she said. Therefore, “I fight against anyone who would have government be the parent to everyone.”

Drawing on her own Dutch heritage, DeVos spoke about the legacy of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). In the wake of the French Revolution its impulse to displace the family with government influenced Dutch law. Education became the responsibility of the government alone—to the exclusion of parents. 

Kuyper came to the defense of Dutch parents and criticized the government that “claimed the right to set up the school for all children.” To the contrary, DeVos said, “the education of children is within the family’s sphere, so parents are ‘called’ to ‘determine the choice of school’ for their children.”

Kuyper worked for 43 years to return control of education dollars from the government to parents. Finally, in 1917, “Dutch families won a constitutional amendment,” said DeVos, “which gave children’s futures back to parents. And today, they are in control of their education dollars to pay for their kids to attend the schools of their choosing.” This is the legacy that she wants for America as well.

Readers of this column may remember 1917 as the very same year when the Communists in Mexico took over Roman Catholic schools and outlawed all religious education. In that same year, 1917, the Bolsheviks seized all the educational institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Government control of is a totalitarian theme.

DeVos understands that school choice lies at the very heart of human freedom. So do parents. A September survey from RealClear Opinion Research found that three out of four registered voters want school choice. This is a non-partisan issue. Independents (73%), Democrats (72%) and Republicans (76%) all agree. 

Parents of students in both public schools (78%) and private schools (79%), are equally interested in school choice. DeVos is not so much pushing an agenda as riding a wave. “If we get the family and its freedom right, everything else that’s wrong about our culture will right itself. Rebuild the family, restore its power, and we will reclaim everything right about America, and us.”

That is why the Department of Education actively supports the bipartisan School Choice Now Act. “At the end of the day,” said DeVos, “we want parents to have the freedom, the choices, and the funds to make the best decisions for their children.” 

The department also fought alongside the families of Montana all the way to the Supreme Court. In June they won the Espinoza v. Montana case. This case struck down the anti-religious “Blaine Amendments” designed to require parents who want a choice in education to pay twice. First, they have to pay for a public education, which they don’t want. Then, they have to pay again for the education of their choosing.

American families, with one voice, are demanding freedom to regain control over educational dollars. They know that a free society begins with educational freedom. 

Secretary DeVos is listening and responding. Will Wyoming’s legislators and educators join her?

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