Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy Devos – most recently seen trying to cut funding from the Special Olympics (because that’s What Jesus Would Do, right?) – is in town TODAY to help Governor Lee push his school vouchers plan (aka “Education Savings Accounts”) which passed the House Education Committee last week.
Supporters of the vouchers say they will help some kids in failing schools escape to a better education.
Opponents say we shouldn’t be steering public money away from already struggling public schools to do that, that it amounts to the privatization of education, and that the private schools in receipt of the money wouldn’t be subject to the same kind of accountability, and would be able to discriminate against certain kids using public funds.
(Watch our highlights of the Education Committee debate HERE.)
The TEA says Vouchers have been a “disaster” where implemented and remains against them, as are a number of other organizations.
Many of the schools on the list of Tennessee schools which would accept the vouchers are small Christian schools. This is noteworthy because of an interview Devos and her husband gave in 2001 in which they answered the question of why she wasn’t just focused on funding private Christian schools on her own by saying they were looking for a greater opportunity to “advance God’s kingdom”.
Listen to 90 seconds of the interview:
The audio clip, which was exclusively obtained by Politico, reveals how the religion of the Devos family fuels their drive to reform public education. It comes from the 2001 edition of a conference known as The Gathering, an annual meeting of some of the nation’s most wealthy Christians.
The interviewer asks:
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply fund Christian private schools and be done with it?”
Betsy Devos answers:
“There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education.”
The couple goes on to describe school choice as leading to “greater kingdom gain” explaining how public education has “displaced” the church as the center of communities, and said providing parents with school choice is one way to undo that displacement.
They say their work is an effort to remain active in the “Shephelah”, a region they learned about on a trip to Israel, which is supposedly where David and Goliath fought, which represents a public forum where the influence of the church is needed, rather than fleeing to the hills to live comfortably. Congregations looking to support their church’s activities may want to read more about mobile giving apps and how they can be used to make financial donations to their place of worship. Churches with lofty aspirations often need additional monetary aid in order to see their plans through to fruition.
“Our desire is to be in that Shephelah, and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory.”
Her husband Dick then adds:
“We could run away and just go back up in the hills and live very safely and very comfortably – or are we going to exist in the Shephelah and try to impact the view of the community around us with the ideas we believe are more powerful ideas of a better way to live one’s life and a more meaningful and a more rewarding way to live one’s life as a Christian?”
(Their talk does not touch on LGBT issues, but Politico points out that “Other members of the DeVos family have contributed to anti-LGBT causes; there have been conflicting reports about the work by Betsy DeVos and her husband in this arena.”)
Governor Lee, who is a driving force behind this legislation, makes no secret about his religious beliefs, often bringing up his faith in ads and campaign stops during his race.
Tennessee is a largely Christian state, as is America on the whole, and everyone should be free to practice their own faith, but a valid question remains: Should government money help finance religious education?
Religion is central to the school choice debate. There’s concern about the effects of blurring the line of church-state separation, something which we see plenty of in the state legislature these days as the anti-LGBT “slate of hate” snakes it’s way through the process.
The courts have been mixed on the issue of sending public money to private schools, but in 2006 the Florida Supreme Court did strike down a school voucher plan in the state, saying that the program was unconstitutional and that it channeled tax dollars into “separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools.”
Tennessee is 45th in spending per pupil.
The vouchers bill is heading towards a floor vote in the house, and it is likely to have support in the senate, where Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson has already said he supports them “1000%” but made it clear he intends to keep them far away from Williamson County, where he, Speaker Casada, and Governor Lee all live.