Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at Hillsdale College

Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at Hillsdale College

October 19, 2020

Thank you, Dr. Arnn, for that kind introduction, for your leadership here, and for your unparalleled commitment to the “diffusion of sound learning.”

That line from Hillsdale’s charter is, by itself, a noble charge. Put in the context of your founding, it becomes a higher calling. Your founders believed then—as we still do today—that education is the means by which we secure the God-given blessings of liberty.

And under Dr. Arnn’s bold leadership and clear-eyed vision, Hillsdale continues to be a fertile oasis for those who seek truth in a higher education landscape that is rapidly deserting it.

Hillsdale’s founders welcomed anyone and everyone who wanted to learn, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Long before those words from Abraham Lincoln carried America’s conscience, your charter was the first in our history to prohibit any discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or any other label by which governments divide us.

From being an early force for abolition, to turning away the government’s regulators, to rejecting taxpayer subsidies, Hillsdale’s hallmark was, is, and always will be independence.

And though I always admired that independence, having been witness to the Federal bureaucracy at work for nearly four years, I can tell you with certainty: Your decision to decline any help from Washington was wise then and is still wise today.

I was pleased to visit with some of you and learn more about what you’re doing to rethink education. Students are benefitting from a classical approach to learning and internalizing first principles from the first texts of our Framers.

It’s also encouraging that many Hillsdale graduates begin their careers at the front of the classroom, often in schools launched as part of your Charter School Initiative.

From Idaho to Florida, the Initiative has helped open more than 20 public charter schools serving more than 12,000 students currently. More schools are slated to open soon, and they couldn’t come at a more important time. Across America, there is massive unmet demand—especially now.

The COVID crisis has laid bare a lot about American education. Parents are more aware than ever before how and what their children are—or are not—learning. And far too many of them are stuck with no choices, no help, and no way forward.

Sadly, too many politicians heed the shrill voices of the education lobby and ignore the voices of children, parents, teachers, and health experts who are begging to get our students back to learning.

As for me, 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.

Many in Washington think that because of their power there, they can make decisions for parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home, the child becomes a pawn, and the state replaces the family.

That sequence has played itself out too many times throughout the course of human history.

My family has deep roots in the Netherlands. And I think of the debate that took place there during much of the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond. In the interest of time, I’m going to truncate history a bit.

For a time, parents in Holland raised their children according to their customs and their beliefs with little “supervision” from the government or its schools. But the French Revolution brought with it the idea of a one-size-fits-all school “system,” one that the Dutch were arguably too quick to adopt. Over time, the view that education was a responsibility of government—not of parents—grew to prevail among Dutch elites. Independent schools were illegal. Parents had no options and no hope.

Until they met Abraham Kuyper. This pastor turned politician became a rousing voice for parents who were not happy with their government—one which “claimed the right to set up the school for all children.” A system that Kuyper said “summons [their] children from [their] homes yet increasingly erases every distinctive feature of families” and “provides uniform guidance to every child.”

Kuyper asserted that the way forward was to separate education from partisan politics. He said that “the family, the business, science, art, and so forth are all social spheres which do not owe their existence to the state and which do not derive the law of their life from the state.” And so, Kuyper argued, “the state cannot intrude [into these spheres] and has nothing to command in their domain.”

He was very clear: the education of children is within the family’s sphere, so parents are “called” to “determine the choice of school” for their children.

For most of his political career, Kuyper was a voice for parents and a fierce defender of the family. 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.

Let me suggest we could fix education for so many children in America if we “go Dutch.”

That means we embrace the family as the sovereign sphere that it is. A sphere that predates government altogether. 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. And just as the family shapes its culture, it also shapes its government.

That truth is contained in our Founding. Here, “We the People” govern. Because we know what’s best for ourselves, and for our children. And we consent to a government that exercises only those duties we delegate to it.

Our schools exist because we pay for them. So, we should be empowered to spend our education dollars our way on our kids.

I like to picture kids with their backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn. In this sense, public and private schools alike don’t exist to supplant parents; they exist to supplement them.

Now, some claim this would cost too much. But, like so many arguments put forward in this debate, the facts just don’t bear that out.

Every year, American taxpayers spend about 739 billion dollars on government education. More than 15 thousand dollars on average, per student, per year. And spending increases year after year after year.

Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: “I could educate my child for 15 thousand dollars per year!” I’m told your Academy here at Hillsdale charges less than half that much.

You could improve your child’s outcomes with that kind of money. A single parent in Detroit, or Flint, or Grand Rapids could open the door to a better life for their child if only they had control of how taxpayer dollars are spent on their child’s education.

America’s parents agree. There’s a mighty chorus, rising in volume and urgency, supporting parental “school choice.” Countless surveys show that more families today want parental choice than ever before. A recent RealClear Opinion survey found that 3 out of 4 families with children in public schools want their education dollars to follow their children wherever they go to learn. Notably, 73 percent of black families and 71 percent of Hispanic families say they want the same thing.

“School choice” is not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.” Fortunately, “when” is now for some students in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and even Illinois, who today have more choices than they did four years ago.

But we’re just getting started.

I’ve spent more than half of my life alongside you fighting to resurrect the rights of parents in education. More than 30 years of time and treasure devoted to giving all kids the same opportunities my own kids had.

In fact, I’ve been working to reform education since soon after Jimmy Carter bent to the demands of big union bosses and created the Department I head today.

I assume most of you have never stepped foot inside the U.S. Department of Education. And I can report, you haven’t missed much.

These past few years I’ve gotten a close-up view of what that building focuses on. And let me tell you, it’s not on students.

It’s on rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting “the system.” 40 years later, taxpayers have spent more than one trillion dollars at the Federal level alone trying to “fix” K-12 education. The “results” speak for themselves.

Just open up the Nation’s Report Card and you’ll see what I mean. America’s gold standard assessment of academic achievement reports the appalling result that two thirds of our Nation’s students can’t read like they should. Two out of three!

Those are just some of the numbers. But behind the statistics are real consequences for real people.

Put yourself in the shoes of the father whose son, a recent high school graduate, was honored in the local newspaper. Dad’s pride turns to dismay as he discovers his son can’t read or comprehend the article about himself. Dad marches over to the high school principal’s office, his son and the newspaper in tow, and asks his son to read the article to the principal. He, of course, can’t. The father pointedly asks the principal how he could’ve graduated his son—or anyone else—who can’t read. There is no defensible answer.

I think of my visit to an Indianapolis prison. The warden shared with me that the biggest problem there is not violence nor discipline. It’s illiteracy.

These are very real consequences of government overreach into every part of our lives.

When I took on this role, I said from day one that I’d like to work myself out of a job. That I’d work to empower parents, not politicians.

To that end, we restored state, local, and family control of education 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.

We expanded the in-demand D.C. voucher program by 50 percent. We supported the creation of more public charter schools, with a particular focus on Opportunity Zones—70 percent of which currently have zero public charter schools. We reformed the tax code so families can use tax-preferred 529 savings accounts for expenses related to K-12 education.

We joined Montana parents in their fight all the way to the Supreme Court ending the “last acceptable prejudice” made manifest in bigoted Blaine Amendments which deny students the freedom to pursue faith-based education.

And we support the bipartisan School Choice Now Act, which would directly fund families and empower them to choose the best educational setting for their children.

A majority in the United States Senate voted in favor of Senator Tim Scott’s School Choice Now provision. I think you all know Senator Scott and his story. His life experience demonstrates how education can change lives. He said his mother knew that “if we could find the opportunity, bigger things would come.” And for students like him, who by no fault of their own, are denied opportunities, he knows firsthand that students need access to more of them—right now.

Families could use these Scholarships to enhance distance learning or to pay for other costs tied to educating children at home. They could be used for tutoring, career and technical education, or transportation to a different school. The Scholarships could support students attending the school that best meets their needs or matches their values.

At the end of the day, we want parents to have the freedom, the choices, and the funds to make the best decisions for their children.

The “Washington knows best” crowd really loses their minds over that. They seem to think that the people’s money doesn’t belong to the people. That it instead belongs to “the public,” or rather, what they really mean—government.

Winston Churchill pointed out the danger in missing the difference. He said there’s a kind of voluntary socialism that says “‘all mine is yours.’” But the kind of socialism government forces says “‘all yours is mine.’”

Too many today—especially among our rising generation—don’t seem to understand the dangers of such a view. They somehow have come to believe that socialism is the cure, not the deadly disease it really is.

Tragically, it’s because no one has taught them differently. And worse, some have been indoctrinated to believe not in themselves, but in government.

We know more than half of today’s high school seniors have what researchers call a “below basic” knowledge of American history.

In the real world, that means more than half of our young men and women don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about; they can’t identify that a photo labeled “Berlin 1989” depicts the fall of the Berlin Wall; nor do they understand the significance of those momentous events.

And it’s not just history we’ve failed to teach them. America’s cities ablaze today witness a failure to teach the things that make the American experiment work.

It’s ignorant to hate capitalism when you don’t really know how communism hasn’t worked. It’s ignorant to hate freedom, when you don’t really know how tyranny hasn’t worked.

So, the unholy mob thinks our economies need redistributing. It thinks our Constitution needs rewriting. It thinks our families need restructuring. One prominent group was explicit about its desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.”

That’s taken right from the old Marxist playbook. It admits the goal is to “[do] away with private property and [educate] children on a communal basis, and in this way [remove] the two bases of traditional marriage.”

Even Marxists know the family is it. The family is at the center of our economy, of education, of culture—and it’s under attack today.

Recall what’s being said about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s “big” family—as if raising seven children is something to be embarrassed by, or worse, ashamed of. Perhaps that comes from a small-minded and offensive view that American women cannot be devoted to their families, be smart, hardworking, faithful, independent, successful, and be conservative. What we know to be true, is that women can be all of those things.

So, let’s proclaim with one voice: that dogma lives loudly within all of us!

G.K. Chesterton warned that the “triangle of truisms—of father, mother, and child—cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.”

Some, however, suggest we should simply throw in the towel and accept “what is” at the expense of “what could be.”

These folks cower at the crowds, lament legislative losses, despair over court decisions, and resignedly say: “This is the new normal.” They tell the rest of us to “accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation.” That we’d best retreat to a makeshift monastery and leave culture and country behind.

Others feel forced into a self-imposed silence. Because what was once the beginning of discourse is now the end of acceptance. “Cancel culture” has invaded the workplace, the neighborhood, and friendships.

In today’s modern town squares—Facebook, Twitter, and the like—one can’t publicly express a conservative view without inviting scathing rebuke, or worse, censorship. Ronald Reagan warned this would happen when he so presciently predicted that “if fascism ever comes to America, it’ll come in the name of liberalism.”

After all, haven’t we watched those who talk “tolerance” turn around and behave like some of the most intolerant people on earth?

To be sure, this environment makes it harder to protect principle, to defend what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” Hillsdale’s great friend Russell Kirk famously enumerated a few of them: charity, justice, duty, fortitude, and freedom.

We need those “permanent things” now more than ever, and they require our defense now more than ever.

This was true in Abraham Kuyper’s day as well.

Dutch families were concerned about government control and cultural decay then as we are today. Many there also called for retreat.

But Kuyper called an isolationist impulse “the grand lie.” He asserted that we each have a “calling in the midst of the life of the world” and we cannot neglect the world. Importantly, he reminded us that “the school is one of the chief instruments precisely for enriching people.”

Ultimately, Kuyper said that “arrows do not exist simply to be kept in the quiver; at some point they need to be placed on the bowstring.”

I know some might shrink from that metaphor, but moms know what I mean. We know what to do with an arrow when our family is under attack.

So, instead of canceling the culture, let’s answer Kuyper’s call to challenge the culture—with education. Instead of rewriting our Constitution, let’s return to its timeless words, and restore the power of “We the People.” Because we don’t believe in retreat. We believe in redemption.

Let’s begin by reasserting this fundamental truth: the family is the “first school.” If we recognize that, then we must also reorder everything about education around what the family wants and what the family needs.

Make no mistake: America cannot win the future if we lose the rising generation.

If we get the family and its freedom right, everything else that’s wrong about our culture will right itself. Rebuild the family, restore its power, and we will reclaim everything right about America, and us.

So, as our Founding Fathers did long ago, let us pledge our sacred honor to rediscover and resurrect all that makes us great.

We are families. Education is our sovereign sphere and we are taking it back!

Thank you for keeping Hillsdale a fountain of ideas for America and her students.