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.