Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is supposed to represent public schools, recently visited a Catholic school in Grand Rapids. She used this school to irresponsibly drive home the idea that it’s safe to have in-person classes. She said All schools in MI need an in-person option. Sacred Heart shows that it can be done. Then she thanked the teachers and staff for putting students’ needs first. She ended her tweet with #SchoolChoiceNow.
DeVos might have thought to drive east to visit Detroit schools. She could have stopped on her way to see how the children in Flint were doing. The truth is 86 percent of Michigan’s school districts have some face-to-face options, but balancing how to safely deal with an unprecedented virus takes careful thought and study. It isn’t simply an either-or situation.
DeVos has made it a point to visit many private and parochial schools since she became education secretary, even though her primary obligation is to public schools. She positively highlights the schools she visits, always sending the message that they’re better than public schools.
In this effort to end public education, she has boldly ignored the Separation of Church and State. The ACLU notes:
The First Amendment contains two explicit provisions concerning religion. The Establishment Clause, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…’ was written to make sure that the government would not promote, endorse, finance or encourage any particular religious beliefs or symbols. The ‘Free Exercise Clause’ of the First Amendment guarantees the right to practice one’s religion free of government interference.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was almost entirely ignored in the realm of public education in the United States for over a century.
Public schools are to bring children together without judging how children and parents believe. We learned when DeVos was appointed that she wanted to change this. Mother Jones published Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build “God’s Kingdom.”
The issue of religion and public schools has always been controversial. But the push for school privatization and a competitive education marketplace has made it more so, pitting public schools against parochial schools. Betsy DeVos reinforces this, driving schools further apart.
Parochial schools, especially Catholic schools, have struggled during Covid-19. The New York Times reports that about 150 Catholic schools closed nationwide due to financial problems caused by the pandemic. Catholic schools often serve poor families. Some state funds have always gone to these schools for outside student services.
The Catholic church seems to have an affinity with the Trump administration and DeVos. Peter Greene wrote about this in several posts, first Trump Teams Up With Catholic Church For School Vouchers and later Betsy DeVos, the Catholic Church, and Public Tax Dollars.
In a conversation with DeVos on SiriusXM radio, the actual conversation is no longer online, but Greene and several other blogs and news reports reference this conversation:
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, suggested that the secretary was trying to “utilize this particular crisis to ensure that justice is finally done to our kids and the parents who choose to send them to faith-based schools,” including through a new program that encourages states to offer voucher-like grants for parents.
“Am I correct in understanding what your agenda is?” Dolan asks.
“Yes, absolutely,” DeVos responded. “For more than three decades that has been something that I’ve been passionate about. This whole pandemic has brought into clear focus that everyone has been impacted, and we shouldn’t be thinking about students that are in public schools versus private schools.”
A recent report does raise questions about equity, but not how it might seem.
…approximately 1,200 charter schools and 5,400 private schools received an estimated $1.3 billion and $4.5 billion in PPP loans, respectively—averaging $855,000 per school. In contrast, other parts of the CARES Act allocate only $13.2 billion for all of the 98,158 public schools in the country, or $134,500 per school. In other words, private and charter schools are getting six times more per facility than public schools.
Of the 5,400 private schools identified, 1,764 are nonsectarian and 3,426 have a religious affiliation. Of schools with religious affiliations, Catholic schools received the most money, with 1,715 schools taking home $1.3 billion—only $400 million less than the $1.7 billion given to nonsectarian schools.
With the disruption to public schools, there’s concern that public education is under attack. There’s been little guidance from DeVos, and the demands have been harsh that school districts and teachers open schools, despite concerns of students, teachers, and families. While New York City schools struggled with the pandemic last spring, DeVos bypassed them to visit two Orthodox Jewish schools.
It would be one thing if DeVos occasionally visited a parochial school, even seeking ways to help them. But she rarely visits the public schools she’s supposed to represent. She wants to force her choice initiative, and ignores the first amendment like she ignores the dangers of Covid-19!
It was irresponsible for the children at Sacred Heart because there’s uncertainty about this virus. Not long ago, DeVos visited another nonpublic school. It was Thales Academy in North Carolina. A few days later its sister school had to quarantine fourth graders and teachers for 14-days after an asymptomatic student tested positive for the coronavirus. The school still didn’t take the virus seriously.
It’s too bad that Catholic and other parochial schools are having difficulties like public schools, and that this nation isn’t more vested in all its schools.
Groups like Pastors for Texas Children see the big picture. They care about a larger flock, understand the importance of democratic public schools, and stump daily for all God’s children. They work in favor of the first amendment. It’s doable if you keep an open mind and don’t force religion on others.
Recognizing the Separation of Church and State might bring Americans together, and it might even forge a connection to help all schools.
But right now that kind of thinking seems out-of-reach. DeVos’s objective is to defund public education and create a false narrative about competition. Fighting for funds will in the long run hurt all schools.
Roy Turrentine says
“Recognizing the Separation of Church and State might bring Americans together, and it might even forge a connection to help all schools.”
Which is the way it used to be before schools, like everything else in the body politic, we’re not a political football. Every aspect of society is now a potential knife with which a political group seeks to shave off just enough votes to gain power in just the right demographic.
Nancy Bailey says
You’re right. Thanks, Roy.
Viv Barker says
I’m not sure there was ever a halcyon day when public school was not a political football, especially as regards expression of religion. There were heated debates over whether the public should pay for religious schools, and what Bible it was OK to read from in public schools, as early as the 1860’s. By the late 1800’s the ‘which Bible’ issue became grist for state and federal lawsuits. Over the next few decades a dozen states passed laws requiring Bible reading, even though this was routine in a couple dozen other states, indicating the issue was still debated. NYS mandated a supposedly neutral public school prayer in the mid-1950’s which resulted in a lawsuit brought by members of the Jewish faith, soon followed by a Unitarian suit against a PA law requiring bible-reading, which was consolidated with subsequent cases brought by O’Hair/ atheist groups— those early-1960’s cases were built on a series of decisions in the 1940’s that extended application of Bill of Rights to override local laws. Decisions for plaintiffs were controversial and led to the “Lemon test” (related to a 1971 case), which has been applied both con- & more recently pro-public funding of religious instruction right up to the present.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for the excellent rundown, Viv. I agree, but I think DeVos has been especially aggressive.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks to Diane Ravitch.
Vouchers and similar programs should be only for secular private schools just like PELL grants and related college financial aid should only be for secular private schools. Betsy Devos or I would like to call her Karen Dumass is violating the constitution and common sense. Charter school can work if they have supervision and regulation from the department of education.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for your comment, Will. I have to disagree about private schools. They do not accept everyone, and frankly they’re overrated. The few comparison studies I’ve seen indicate that when you adjust for wealth, students don’t do much better in private schools. We need to invest in the public schools that serve every child. And too many charters are run by EMOs that have few if any credentials.