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Sec­retary of Edu­cation Betsy DeVos spoke on campus Monday night. Kalli Dal­rymple | Col­legian

The United States Department of Edu­cation has parents’ backs, according to Sec­retary of Edu­cation Betsy DeVos.

“I fight for America’s stu­dents. I fight for their parents. And I fight against anyone who would have gov­ernment be the parent to everyone,” DeVos said. “In that trou­bling sce­nario, the school building replaces the home, the child becomes a pawn, and the state replaces the family.”

DeVos, a native Michi­gander, addressed an audience of about 250 Hillsdale com­munity members and leaders in Michigan pol­itics such as Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey on Oct. 19 at Hillsdale College’s Searle Center. Numerous members of the DeVos family were also in atten­dance. 

In her speech, DeVos defended the rights of parents to be the primary deciders of how their children should be edu­cated.

According to DeVos, gov­ernment should respect the authority of parents.

“That means we embrace the family as the sov­ereign sphere that it is. A sphere that pre­dates gov­ernment alto­gether,” she said. “It’s been said, after all, that the family is not only an insti­tution; it’s also the foun­dation for all other insti­tu­tions. The nuclear family cul­ti­vates art, ath­letics, business, edu­cation, faith, music, film — in a word, culture.”

Ref­er­encing her Dutch ancestry, DeVos held up the Nether­lands’ model of edu­cation as worthy of imi­tation. She told the story of how, influ­enced by the French Rev­o­lution and sub­se­quent cen­tral­ization of edu­ca­tional authority in France, the Dutch insti­tuted top-down control over all schools in their country. Due to the efforts of Prime Min­ister Abraham Kuyper during the turn of the 20th century, they even­tually returned to a model of local control and school choice.

“A few years before his death, Dutch fam­ilies won a con­sti­tu­tional amendment in 1917 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,” DeVos said.

She also empha­sized that the Trump Admin­is­tration has advanced this vision “by faith­fully imple­menting the Every Student Suc­ceeds Act, by ending Common Core, and by urging Con­gress to put an end to edu­cation ear­marks by con­sol­i­dating nearly all federal K‑12 pro­grams into one block grant.” The admin­is­tration has also expanded the Wash­ington, D.C., school voucher program by 50% and “reformed the tax code so fam­ilies can use tax-pre­ferred 529 savings accounts for expenses related to K‑12 edu­cation.”

Hillsdale Pres­ident Larry Arnn, who has known DeVos for more than 20 years, praised her work in edu­cation reform during his opening remarks.

“Edu­cation is a hal­lowed thing in any great country and a concern of its gov­ernment,” Arnn said. “Here it is to be run by the state gov­ernment. But we have lost sight of what it is because, like every­thing else, it is cen­tralized according to bureau­cratic rules and that is destructive of the whole phe­nomenon. Our greatest fighter against this is our speaker tonight.”

Arnn also affirmed the necessity of parental control over edu­cation.

“How would you organize a school except in a way that taps the force of a mother’s and a father’s love for the edu­cation of the child?” he asked. “Isn’t it bar­barous that we lose sight of that today? Isn’t that one of the grimmest signs of the times?” 

Jonathan Gregg, vis­iting pro­fessor of edu­cation and math­e­matics, added that if or when edu­cation returns to family control, the focus should turn to its content.

“I think it does raise a number of issues, even thinking about decen­tral­izing edu­cation from the federal gov­ernment in the states — you don’t want to just punt that to a dif­ferent person to make a dif­ferent decision,” Gregg said.  “At some point someone needs to be answering the question about what it is that stu­dents should learn, and what kind of ped­a­gogical moves get made in the classroom. That sort of freedom is good, but freedom also implies a respon­si­bility to use it well. And I think that’s where the clas­sical edu­cation piece comes into the puzzle.”

Joanna Young, a mother of three children at Hillsdale Academy, said she appre­ciated DeVos’s remarks.

“I was not familiar with her prior to that and I really enjoyed her speech,” Young said. “It was very refreshing to hear her focus on the family and parents for their chil­dren’s edu­cation. I just found that encour­aging.”

The event fea­tured social dis­tancing, including just four guests to a table in the Searle Center, which was filled to capacity. The Hillsdale College Chamber Choir, con­ducted by Music Department Chair James Holleman, began the evening by singing two pieces, with masks on.