A policy manifesto from an influential conservative group with ties to the Trump administration, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, urges the dismantling of the Education Department and bringing God into American classrooms.
The five-page document produced by the Council for National Policy calls for a “restoration of education in America” that would minimize the federal role, promote religious schools and home schooling and enshrine “historic Judeo-Christian principles” as a basis for instruction.
Names of the council’s members are closely held. But the Southern Poverty Law Center published a 2014 membership directory showing that Stephen K. Bannon — now chief White House strategist for President Trump — was a member and that Kellyanne Conway — now counselor to the president — served on the council’s executive committee.
DeVos was not listed as a member, but her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, was named on the council’s board of governors. Her father-in-law, Amway founder Richard DeVos Sr., twice served as president, most recently from 1990 to 1993. And she and her husband have given money to the council as recently as 2007 through their family foundation, according to federal tax records.
The council’s “Education Reform Report” says it is intended to help DeVos and Trump map a path toward change. The proposal to abolish the department dovetails with the long-held views of many Republicans, and Trump suggested during the 2016 campaign that the agency could be “largely eliminated.” But Trump has given no sign since taking office that he aims to act on that idea, and DeVos embraced the mission of the department when she took office last week.
Still, the council’s views carry weight in the conservative movement. Its hundreds of members are a who’s who of prominent figures on the Christian right, including former lawmakers and leaders in social activism, business and think tanks. Their thrice-yearly meetings are held in undisclosed locations, and every four years GOP presidential candidates show up to address the crowd and seek their favor.
A version of the council’s report, created by an 11-member education committee, was posted on the council’s website. The document was no longer available online as of Wednesday afternoon, after The Washington Post reported on it, but it could still be found on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Three committee members confirmed its authenticity.
The document proposes demoting the department to a presidential “Advisory Council on Public Education Reform,” a sub-Cabinet-level agency that would serve as a consultant to states. New employees should subscribe to the educational worldview of the Trump administration, it says, “from assistant secretaries to the mailroom.”
It also says states should encourage K-12 public schools to post the Ten Commandments, teach Bible classes, recognize holidays such as Easter and Christmas. promote instruction “from a Judeo-Christian perspective” and remove “secular-based sex education materials from school facilities.”
It calls for the termination of the Common Core academic standards and an end to the government collection of student data, which has generated concerns among activists on the right and the left.
The goal, it says, is a “gradual, voluntary return at all levels to free-market private schools, church schools and home schools as the normative American practice.”
Think tanks routinely seek to influence new administrations. But the council’s vision would be a dramatic departure for education in America. Nearly 9 in 10 students attend public schools, and the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the First Amendment prohibits public schools from establishing or promoting any particular religion.
The department administers and manages student loans for tens of millions of borrowers, gives K-12 schools billions of dollars a year to bolster education for children who are poor or have disabilities, and enforces civil rights laws in schools and colleges nationwide.
A department spokesman said Wednesday that DeVos had not received the document and therefore had no reaction. DeVos “fully supports the mission of the department and applauds the decision by the president of the United States to continue to keep the Department of Education at Cabinet level,” the spokesman said.
Trump, as a candidate, endorsed eliminating the Common Core. But as president he cannot do that on his own because standards are decided by states.
Trump has said nothing since taking office about dismantling or downsizing the department. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) this month introduced a one-sentence bill to eliminate the agency by the end of 2018.
DeVos has long advocated for taxpayer-supported vouchers to help parents pay tuition for private and religious schools. Before her confirmation and since taking office Feb. 7, she has sought to allay concerns about how she would lead the department, though she has also made clear that she is looking for ways to shrink it.
“I can’t tell you today what’s being done that’s unnecessary, but I can guarantee that there are things that the department has been doing that are probably not necessary or important for a federal agency to do,” she told Michael Patrick Shiels, a Michigan radio host, this week. “Really, when it comes down to it, education and the provision of education is really a state and local responsibility to a large extent.”
In Washington, she told career employees last week that they are “professionals” to whom she will listen, and she said she thought that despite disagreements, “we can — and must — come together, find common ground and put the needs of our students first.”
DeVos grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and graduated from Calvin College, which is affiliated with that church. Her support for vouchers appears to be motivated by faith: She once said she believed her education-reform efforts could “advance God’s Kingdom” and lead to “greater Kingdom gain in the long run.”
In light of those comments, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked DeVos before her confirmation to clarify her beliefs about the role of religion in public education.
“My faith is very important to me and informs my work. In education, it teaches me that every child is special and deserves the best we can offer them,” she wrote in response to Franken. “That said, I do not believe in imposing my faith on others and, if confirmed, I will implement the laws as intended by Congress. That includes the provisions about the prohibition against religious instruction in schools.”
E. Ray Moore Jr., a member of the council’s education committee, said he thinks that Trump’s election shifted the education debate toward the right, away from a focus on how to fix public schools and toward how to create alternatives. And that’s what is needed, Moore said, to strengthen education.
“The system can’t be fixed,” Moore said. “You don’t hear Republicans and free-market people talking about fixing Obamacare. They talk about repeal and replace. We think the same argument should apply to education.”
Moore is the founder of the Exodus Mandate Project, which encourages Christian families to pull their children out of public schools. He said that he was speaking for himself, not the committee, and that he does not know whether DeVos will adopt any of the committee’s ideas.
“My guess is that she’s not going to want to do a lot of it. It may be a bridge too far for her,” Moore said. “But this is what a lot of conservatives would like to see happen.”
Another committee member, Donna Hearne — a former teacher and author who was an education appointee in the Reagan administration — said this is the council’s first foray into education policy. Members were moved to weigh in, she said, out of concern that U.S. schools have fallen behind even as the federal role in education has expanded.
International tests show American students trail peers from other nations, particularly in Asia.
“Many of us are concerned that our high rate of literacy and comprehension and analytical thinking, they’re not there anymore like they used to be,” she said. “That hurts a country that is based on ‘We the people.’ ”
Hearne said council members also worry children aren’t learning right from wrong in school. “There’s a real need for a discussion in America today of what kind of education do we want,” she said, “because what kind of country do we want down the road?”