Understanding the educational philosophy of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos requires a historical perspective that has its beginnings in The Netherlands of the late 1800s.
It was a period when a public debate raged about the nature of public education. Liberal politicians were largely successful in bolstering the role of secular public schools. They argued that parochial schools sanctioned by churches did not deserve public funds.
This position drew strong opposition from the Catholic Church and Reform groups. Figures representing these religious organizations argued that public funds should support Catholic and Protestant Reform schools at an equal level.
Historians and social observers in the United States say that the present-day debate about school choice – championed by Betsy DeVos – owes its origins to what happened in the Netherland about 150 years ago.
It’s no accident that Betsy DeVos grew up steeped in the Dutch heritage of her family. Her father was Edgar Prince, the grandson of Garret Prince who was born in Holland before immigrating to Illinois. Edgar was born in Holland, Michigan, a town heavily influenced by Dutch culture and the Christian Reformed Church with direct tied to the Dutch Reformed Church of the Netherlands.
The philosophy of the Reformed Church toward education – that religious schools should enjoy public funding – remained a significant influence over the Prince family and informed Betsy DeVos as she grew up as Elisabeth Prince.
She graduated from Holland Christian High School and completed her college years at Calvin College, an elite and private Evangelical university in Grand Rapids.
It’s not surprising, then, that DeVos was destined to remain a passionate advocate of the kind of school system she benefitted from in her formative years. Her critics call her out of touch and a “wealthy elite” with no true understanding of traditional secular public schools – something that DeVos disputes as a decades-long observer of education policy.
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