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Inside Donald Trump’s Extremist Education Agenda

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Inside Donald Trump’s Extremist Education Agenda

Billionaire Betsy DeVos tapped for education secretary

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency left education policy experts at a complete loss to explain what this would mean for the nation’s schools. During his campaign, Trump gave few clues about what would inform his education leadership, only that he had some antipathy for the Department of Education, he was no fan of Common Core and he would advocate for more “school choice.”

After his election, experienced education journalists at Education Week predicted Trump would embrace conservative Beltway think tanks and state education policy leaders who had bristled under the rule of Obama’s education department, and would reject the influence of teachers unions, civil rights groups, and politically centrist education “reform” groups.

Many who pointed out “personnel is policy,” speculated Trump would pick an education secretary from the ranks of his transition advisers who came mostly from the above-mentioned DC-based circles and state government centers. Other knowledgeable sources predicted Trump might draw education policy knowhow from “outsider” sources, such as the military, big business or the charter school industry.

Not a single source I can find anticipated Trump would look for education expertise in the deep, dark well he repeatedly seems to draw from: the extremist, right-wing evangelical community.

The DeVos Nomination

The first clue that Trump would embed the extremist views of radical Christian orthodoxy in the White House’s education policy apparatus was his nomination of Betsy DeVos to be the nation’s next Secretary of Education.

As Politico reports, DeVos is a “billionaire philanthropist” who “once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to ‘advance God’s Kingdom.’”

Politico reporters point to numerous recordings and interviews in which DeVos and her husband Dick, a billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, promote education policies as avenues to “greater Kingdom gain … lament that public schools have ‘displaced’ the Church as the center of communities,” and refer to their efforts to advance private, religious schools as a “Shephelah,” an area where battles, including between David and Goliath, were fought in the Old Testament.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Katherine Stewart, an expert observer of the Christian right, writes, “Betsy DeVos stands at the intersection of two family fortunes that helped to build the Christian right.”

Stewart points to numerous examples of DeVos-related family foundations that have generously donated to “conservative groups” pushing religious right doctrine including, the Alliance Defending Freedom,” the legal juggernaut of the religious right,” and “Colorado-based Christian ministry Focus on the Family.”

But Trump’s selection of DeVos for education secretary is not the only clue that the nation’s education policy may be in for a sharp veer to the religious right. As Stewart reports, “The president-elect’s first move on public education [was] Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the nation … Liberty University teaches creationism alongside evolution.”

Falwell Jr. Came First

The Associated Press was first to break the story about Falwell Jr. being offered the job, reporting also that he declined it saying, “He couldn’t afford to work at a Cabinet-level job for longer than [two years] and didn’t want to move his family, especially his 16-year-old daughter.”

“Here is Trump, ready to hand the job [of Secretary of Education] to a religious zealot whose sole goal,” writes Michelangelo Signorile, the Gays and Lesbians editor for the Huffington Post, “would likely be to infuse evangelical Christian doctrine into public schools.”

Signorile also calls Falwell Jr. an “enemy of LGBTQ rights” and states, “It’s hard to believe Falwell would continue the Obama administration’s pro-LGBTQ programs if he actually became Secretary of Education, nor would he likely take the job with any stipulation that he must so.”

Need more evidence that Trump will usher in an education agenda largely dominated by the evangelical community? Another candidate Trump also considered for education secretary was Larry Arnn.

The Hillsdale College Connection

As the Daily Caller reports, “Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College, a small conservative liberal arts school in Michigan known for declining all federal funds.”

Hillsdale College, located in Hillsdale, Michigan (the Devos family’s home state), is regarded as “the conservative Harvard,” in some circles, and has been the recipient of generous donations from numerous funders of the rightwing conservative movement including the Koch brothers’ family foundation. Hillsdale also sponsors the Rush Limbaugh Show.

Hillsdale students overwhelmingly supported Trump for president, according to the campus newspaper, and at least seven Hillsdale professors and administrators publicly endorsed him.

According to an article in The Atlantic, Hillsdale is one among a number of conservative private colleges that rejects federal funds including financial aid for students. Many of these colleges, while they are rejecting federal funds, “are seeking, exemptions from the US Department of Education from provisions under Title IX of the laws governing higher education, which protects students from discrimination in housing, athletics, and access to facilities on the basis of such things as gender, sexual orientation, sex or pregnancy outside marriage, or having an abortion.”

Hillsdale has a long-held reputation for discriminating on the basis of gender preference and identity, and news outlets in the LGBT community have reported incidents in which Hillsdale staff and officials openly discriminated against gay students.

Arnn also came under fire from many liberal sources for describing nonwhite students as “dark ones” during a state legislature subcommittee hearing regarding the adoption of Common Core State Standards. Hillsdale’s official apology for that incident was arguably worse than Arnn’s remark, a Michigan blogger notes, as the college used its apology as another opportunity to take a swipe at government enforcement of affirmative action policies.

In addition to Hillsdale’s strong resentment of federal intrusion, especially on issues of civil rights, the college also has deep commitments to another favorite of conservative, religious advocates: charter schools.

A Chain Of Religion-Based Charter Schools

As I report in an in-depth investigation of the conservative movement’s influence on charter school expansions in Colorado, in addition to reinforcing gender and race inequity, Hillsdale operates the Barney Charter School Initiative, which is essentially a consultant service for a chain of 16 charter schools called Classical Academies. These charters purport to offer “the same course of study that helped propel Western Civilization to the top of the world,” according to what at least one of these schools says on its website.

The Barney project’s strong political agenda was revealed in its former mission statement, since taken down, which said the Initiative seeks to “recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.” The statement also said, “The charter school vehicle possesses the conceptual elements that permit the launching of a significant campaign of classical school planting to redeem American public education.”

Charter schools created with the help of the Barney Initiative are also proving to be an ideal vehicle for evading laws enforcing separation of church and state. Since my investigation into the opening of a Barney-related charter in Colorado called Golden View Classical Academy, an independent news outlet in that state confirms the school indeed provides students a religion-based curriculum on the taxpayers’ dime.

As Marianne Goodland of the Colorado Independent reports, charter schools like Golden View “have found a legal workaround, and many Democratic and Republican lawmakers are looking the other way.”

Goodland recalls when Golden View applied to the district school board for approval, the school’s director “assured the board Golden View would not use a religious curriculum” and “agreed to comply with the intent of Colorado’s sexual education law by providing ‘appropriate instruction on human anatomy, reproduction and sexuality.’”

Yet, she notes the school’s family handbook, “adopted before the charter application was approved includes references to teaching about sexual intercourse only “in the context of a monogamous relationship between two people of opposite sexes,” a focus on abstinence, admonitions on “the moral and physical consequences of promiscuous sex,” and the “limited effectiveness” of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

Goodlad blames a loose, unregulated waiver process for allowing charter schools like Golden View to skirt state laws, and she points to Colorado public officials  who provide charters ample leeway to ensure they have the  “autonomy” which they claim justifies their existence.

Keep in mind, Barney-related charters like Golden View, that essentially function like private religious schools while receiving taxpayer money, are scattered across the country; their network is growing, and a Trump administration that has pledged to provide more money for “school choice” will only help fuel more rapid expansions of these schools.

“Neither the public nor lawmakers understand the extent of the problem,” Goodlad concludes.

How DeVos And Hillsdale Intersect

Unsurprisingly, Hillsdale president Arnn says Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, “is someone he ‘knows and admires,’” according to right-wing news outlet Breitbart.

And why not, since Hillsdale also has strong ties to DeVos and her immediate family.

As the Hillsdale campus newspaper reports, DeVos’s “roots in Michigan philanthropy run deep and also intersect with Hillsdale College. Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, a 1992 graduate of Hillsdale College and the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, now named Academi. In 2009, the DeVos family also founded ArtPrize, an international art competition that featured the work of five art professors and students this year. Most notably, Richard DeVos, Betsy DeVos’ father-in-law, co-founded Amway with Jay Van Andel. Van Andel’s son, Steve, was a 1978 graduate of Hillsdale and currently serves as the chairman of Amway. In 2013, after he donated to graduate school scholarships and operations, Hillsdale named its graduate school of statesmanship in his honor.”

Jay Van Andel was also, at the time of his death, a trustee of Hillsdale College, according to Wikipedia.

Most Extremist Administration Ever?

“Those who know DeVos say her goals are not sinister,” Politico reporters caution, “though they acknowledge the policies she’s likely to advance would benefit Christian schools. In fact, Trump’s $20 billion school choice program that would allow low-income students to select private or charter schools was devised with the help of the advocacy group DeVos headed until recently.”

Despite the strong evidence Trump’s education agenda may be driven by right-wing evangelicals, advocates for charter schools in the Democratic Party keep looking for reasons to believe Betsy DeVos is not going to be the extremist she is often portrayed as in media reports.

On hearing the news of the DeVos nomination, the politically centrist hedge fund-backed Democrats for Education Reform released a statement congratulating DeVos on her appointment and applauding her “commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools,” while at the same time regretting that her nomination is the outcome of a political campaign driven by “bigoted and offensive rhetoric.” (Never mind the charter schools DeVos helped grow in Michigan seem less than “high quality.”)

Another centrist Democrat deeply embedded in the investment community, Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Partners, hopes a Trump administration will offer up a plan for charter school expansion that includes “sweeteners for the Congressional Black Caucus” – a condescending and white privilege phrase if there ever was one.

Emma Brown, the education reporter for the Washington Post, notes many advocates for charter schools “worry” Trump’s embrace of charter schools may be identified with his “rhetoric about immigrants, inner cities, and women,” but still hope some kind of “strong accountability” will be in the new administration’s charter school governance, even though those accountability measures have proven to be easily gamed by the savviest charter operators.

“Playing the politics of niceness has never been so convenient for the Dems of education reform,” writes college professor and former charter school leader-turned reform critic Andre Perry. “DeVos’s belief in limited state oversight, for-profit charter management, and vouchers didn’t give Democrat proponents of charter schools any pause in the past. And for many it doesn’t now.”

If Perry is correct, that’s a shame, because anyone who strives for a clear-eyed view of the Trump administration’s oncoming education agenda will find there is no evidence—zero—of anything other than the most extreme policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.

Jeff Bryant is director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy.

IMAGE: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) stands with Betsy DeVos after their meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar



  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 4, 2017

    Trump isn’t a fan of Common Core? No surprise there given his lack of serious knowledge, his displeasure with the thought of reading, not to mention having nary a book in sight in his office when he was being interviewed by the author of his vapid self-serving publication “The Art of The Deal”. (The book should have had a subtitle “Or How to Hoodwink The Hapless Members of The US Electorate”).

    While the rest of the world proceeds with an enthusiasm for learning and educating their youth even if it means dire hardships, Donald, the GOP, and its legions of untutored unmotivated followers, wallow in the thought of just barely getting by—without aspirations to learn new things or reading about different cultures, and detest the very notion of reading anything besides comic strips, Head Lines, The National Enquirer, bank statements, and staring daily at the ticker tape at the bottom of FOX News Broadcasts.

    1. Theresejpickard January 5, 2017

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    2. InGen12 January 5, 2017

      Drumpf not a fan of Common Core? Surprise, surprise. Common Core teaches critical thinking skills (somethin Drumpf is not familiar with, obviously) and was originally conceptualized by major corporations (GE, in particular) as a way to ready American students for the demands of the corporate world. At first glance of Common Core, people wonder why a simple math problem goes through so many steps to get to the answer. Because it’s teaching students to use critical thinking to get to an answer! That way, when an American worker discovers the simple response to a problem does not work, they are equipped with the thinking skills to find new answers.

      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 6, 2017

        Critical thinking to me seems to be at the core(not a pun) of what afflicts people of various backgrounds across the world. Religious fanatics have an inability to properly read on a deep level and not just literally what their Books have written in Them—people can read the Qur’an and the Bible and what not, but often don’t understand the deeper meanings. Some cultures emphasize learning, but by rote and without reflection and just regurgitate without knowing how to choose the right method(s) for a given problem.

        1. dpaano January 6, 2017

          I agree wholeheartedly…..I had a friend who went to Bible College and is now a pastor. He always told me that the Bible was merely a book written about how we were supposed to live our lives, and it used parables to get these points across. However, some religions take the Bible literally rather than what it was originally meant for. Unfortunately, however, some people totally take the Bible out of context….much like today’s conservatives! My friend says that this is the biggest problem nowadays, especially with the evangelical Christians as well as the Taliban and Al Quada.

    3. TZToronto January 5, 2017

      I was going to write something about the dumbing-down of education, but that’s a waste of time. The GOP and their Trumpian leader simply want to destroy anything that Democratic Presidents have accomplished over the last 84 years. That’s why Trump is appointing wealthy stooges to key posts in his administration, people who think as he does, people who feel that the federal government has too much control over everything they do. He wants to ensure that his own financial dealings are immune from regulation, and he’ll have a cooperative GOP Congress and Supreme Court to make sure he gets his way–to the detriment of the American people. Welcome back to October 29, 1929!

  2. Dominick Vila January 5, 2017

    The most amazing part of this issue is that those determined to deny free public education to every American child, and those who overtly disenfranchise members of non-white and other cultural groups, claim to do their misdeeds in the name of a Middle Eastern man whose teaching and life example was centered on caring and loving one another, compassion, and helping those in need.
    If it wasn’t because of my agnostic inclinations, I would conclude that the Devil is gaining ground in America disguised as an Evangelical pseudo Christian.
    I don’t have a problem with religious schools or charter schools, but replacing the public school system, and imposing the views of religious zealots on the will of the majority, is definitely not the way to go. Moreover, there is no apparent mandate from the American people demonstrating support for such a extremist, and counter productive agenda. In addition to the advancement of misguided religious goals, what is happening seems to be designed to deny specific demographic groups the education they need to become productive and prosperous citizens. It, in effect, advances 21st century slavery using righteous themes to justify it.

    1. FireBaron January 5, 2017

      Why, Dom, don’t you realize that free public education teaches children HOW to think for themselves? This is as opposed to the private church-run education, that many conservatives would love to see instituted, where they teach you WHAT to think.

      1. Dominick Vila January 5, 2017

        …including convincing children that science is evil, and that miracles happen.

    2. Dan S January 5, 2017

      In scripture it says the forthcoming Anti Christ will come as an Angel of light. So while everyone looks for horns and a tail his appearance will look a lot more like say Donald Trump ???? So yes in a sense the Devil is about to enter the Oval Office. And to think Trump called Clinton the Devil in their last debate ????

      1. dpaano January 5, 2017

        I’ve been saying all along that he is the antichrist, but no one believed me!!

        1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 6, 2017

          I always saw his anti-christ sentiments the moment he started appearing on TV, dismissing him as a churl and a boor trying to get extra attention. Well, the joke’s on us for not taking the danger seriously.

    3. dpaano January 5, 2017

      Charter schools are almost like Scientology…….cult-like! I personally would NOT want my child to go to a school where they are taught religion….that’s why they go to church! I want my child to have a well-rounded education, to include vocational subjects as well as the rest of the three R’s!

      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 6, 2017

        I know of one charter school in the northeast run by a Baha’i which is renown for its focus and attention to providing a curriculum and environment centered around the theme of “The Oneness of Humankind”.
        The principal himself, a fellow participant in what was once called the “Baha’i Black Men’s Gathering”(BMG), was instrumental in providing solace for the family of a student of his school who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing a couple of years ago.

        1. dpaano January 6, 2017

          I should have said that not ALL religion-based charter schools are bad….that’s not always the case. But, in the case of, for example, Catholic schools, they tend to teach more about the religion and less about what they SHOULD be teaching. Because they read the Bible and take it out of context, they debase science, evolution, etc. This is NOT what our children should be only learning in order to deal with today’s world.

          1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 7, 2017

            No Problem. And you’re quite right about the narrow curricula of most Religion-based schools which teach a religion’s ideology primarily while neglecting science, mathematics, literature except by offering a brief exposure to such topics.

  3. FireBaron January 5, 2017

    My biggest problem with DeVos is she wants federal and state funding for her chain of Charter Schools (almost all of which fail to meet minimum academic standards), but does not want any oversight (including local school boards) over her (failing) curriculum.

    1. jmprint January 5, 2017

      Her motto “keep them dumb and they will vote for you.”

      1. Dan S January 5, 2017

        That’s Trumps MO also. Remember he stated I Love The Uneducated ????

  4. Mama Bear January 5, 2017

    Charter schools are for-profit schools. If anyone believes for one second that they provide quality education take a look at what they did in Ohio under Kasich. Complete disaster for the kids, but very profitable for the owners. Isn’t that what capitalism is all about? Profit? My bigger complaint (livin in Ohio) is that 90% of my property tax dollars go to schools and this money that these “corporate schools” are siphoning is taking away from legitimate education in public schools.

    1. dbtheonly January 5, 2017

      There is one other point for private schools. They got their beginning as schools for those fleeing the, now desegregated, public school system.

      1. Mama Bear January 5, 2017

        I have no problem with private schools as long as the parents pay the freight, not the property tax payers. My property taxes have gone up 200% since Kasich let his pals do whatever they wanted with charter schools.

        1. dbtheonly January 5, 2017

          Okay, we’ll disagree on that one. I’m opposed to racially segregated schools, however paid for.

          I am in favor of the community providing the best possible, free, Pre-K-12 education to all in the community. Anyone who wants to opt out does so on their own dime.

          Any chance of using property taxes against Kasich?

          1. Mama Bear January 5, 2017

            I probably did not fully understand your post, db. I too am opposed to any kind of segregated schools. I am not opposed to someone sending their kids to a parochial school on their own dime, those schools – at least here – are fully integrated (example is St. Vincent where my hero Lebron James got his start). I am opposed to “charter for profit schools that are using tax money and not educating kids. Kasich cut education totally our of the Ohio budget so he can proudly proclaim “I cut state spending” and that is when the full burden fell on the homeowners.

  5. Godzilla January 5, 2017

    The government run liberal indoctrination centers are failing miserably, especially in Democrat controlled inner cities. Liberal/Progressive failed policies should be the first thing demonized in every school, and every school should

    A: Lose the Unions, they hurt education and rip off tax payers
    B: Get government out of the education business. A Century of failure supports this.
    C: Get government out of the student loan business. This will make higher education affordable again.
    D: NO tax dollars go to any college that leans politically and ALL politically motivated courses should be abolished.

    E: Cull all Liberal’s from our society. Ship them to Europe or other Socialist Utopia and teach them what real poverty means.

    1. johninPCFL January 5, 2017

      A. Bullshit. The unions counterbalance the single teacher versus the corporation or government agent with the checkbook.

      B. Bullshit. Jefferson (the founder of the public University of Virginia) argued vociferously his entire life that the best foundation of a functional democracy was an educated citizenry. You clearly missed the civics lesson. Homeschooled?

      C. Maybe.

      D. Who decides what political leanings a non-person has? Who decides what constitutes “politically motivated”? You?

      E. That would eliminate Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, Madison, etc. You’re an idiot.

    2. 788eddie January 5, 2017

      It is interesting to note that, as unions have decreased in number across the country, wages have also declined. I would say that we should be INCREASING the number of unions (unless, of course, one is one of the bosses).

    3. The lucky one January 6, 2017

      Ahh, another meaningless rant from Goonzilla, living proof that the education system has failed to educate those with obviously little capacity for critical thought.


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