Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently spoke at Calvin University in Michigan. As one of the university’s most prominent graduates, her remarks were received with respect.

Dr. John Walcott, a professor of education at Calvin University, wrote an article for the school newspaper in which he expressed respectful disagreement with her ideas. The full article is worth reading. It takes courage for a professor to take issue with a state and national leader such as DeVos, especially in a religion-focused university.

Be sure to open the link and read the comments.

He began:

On Nov. 17, Calvin University hosted an event with Betsy DeVos. DeVos served as Secretary of Education during the Trump administration and is a graduate of Calvin University. In making the announcement, President Boer described the event as part of efforts “to hear from people who bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives to important conversations.”

DeVos served as Secretary of Education during the Trump administration and is a graduate of Calvin University. In making the announcement, President Boer described the event as part of efforts “to hear from people who bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives to important conversations.”

I understand and respect the desire of our university to welcome to our campus a distinguished alum who has a long history of involvement at local, state and national levels. Furthermore, I agree that it is important to provide space for “diverse perspectives” and “important conversations.” We must strive to be a community willing to ask tough questions and engage deeply with important issues in our world.

I believe that an opportunity for additional engagement with these issues is especially necessary because of the problematic nature of much of what Secretary DeVos proposes when it comes to education. For example, her call to support “students and not systems” fails to recognize that student learning can be supported by teachers, curriculum, financial resources, school administrators and, yes, in many cases may even require a building conducive to learning. It is easy to demonize systems, but the use of this sort of false dichotomy is ultimately unproductive.

In that spirit, I suggest that we continue the conversation started at this event. The event used an interview format that did not provide opportunity for the sort of conversation and debate that are required to dig deeply into important issues related to educational policy and the state of education in our nation. Near the close of the event, Secretary DeVos stated her ongoing desire to “debate and advance” the policies for which she advocates. I agree that we need to debate these policies and, as a university community, think deeply about issues that relate to education and political engagement and how God calls us to seek justice and be agents of renewal in our world.

I believe that an opportunity for additional engagement with these issues is especially necessary because of the problematic nature of much of what Secretary DeVos proposes when it comes to education. For example, her call to support “students and not systems” fails to recognize that student learning can be supported by teachers, curriculum, financial resources, school administrators and, yes, in many cases may even require a building conducive to learning. It is easy to demonize systems, but the use of this sort of false dichotomy is ultimately unproductive.

We also need to carefully consider Secretary DeVos’ focus on parental choice and individual rights as the basis of her calls to change our educational system. This perspective ignores the function of our schools as a public good, an institution at the core of our desire to promote democratic values and the flourishing of all students. We need to think carefully about the purpose of education in a democratic society and about the role of public schools that have been part of our nation’s commitment to education since before the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Our call to seek justice and be agents of renewal in our world may push us to prioritize the needs of our community and of the most vulnerable in our society over individual rights.

As an educational scholar and researcher, I recognize the need to carefully examine the impacts of policies that use the language of choice and freedom on student learning and on public schools. For example, advocates for school vouchers, which allow parents to use public education funds for tuition in private schools, argue that these policies can be the key to improving student outcomes while ignoring research that does not support these claims. For example, Dr. Christopher Lubienski (Director of the Center for Evaluation and Policy Analysis at Indiana University), summarizing research since 2015, states that “every study of the impacts of statewide voucher programs has found large, negative effects from these programs on the achievement of students using vouchers.”

A thorough discussion will explore the impact of DeVos-supported policies on school funding. Recent reports from Florida note that this year, school vouchers will divert $1.3 billion from public schools, and reports from states like Arizona, New Hampshire and Wisconsin show that the overwhelming majority (80%, 89% and 75%) of students utilizing vouchers were already in private schools before the programs began. We need to ask if public funds should be given to schools that are in some cases not required to comply with regulations related to special education, federal civil rights laws and curriculum standards. We should engage critically in questions regarding the role of teachers’ unions before dismissing out of hand their role in public education. And we should critically examine the rhetoric that is currently a part of the so-called “culture wars,” especially as it relates to education. I am concerned that Secretary DeVos has contributed to a misrepresentation of critical race theory and may be perceived as aligning with groups and individuals that have advanced a harmful narrative directed at the LGBTQ+ community.

These are just a few of the many complex and vitally important issues that need to be a part of a deeper conversation. I am not criticizing the decision to host Secretary DeVos, a distinguished graduate with years of activism in the public sphere. However, as a faculty member in the School of Education, it is important to me that the broader educational community understands that this does not signal an endorsement of her policies and perspectives by the School of Education. And I remain hopeful that we, as a community, will embrace the opportunity to not only offer diverse perspectives, but also engage deeply in important conversations of what it means to think deeply, act justly and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.