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It’s Christmastime in Holland, Michigan, and the northerly winds from Lake Macatawa bring a merciless chill to the small city covered in deep snow. The sparkly lights on the trees in downtown luxury storefronts illuminate seasonal delicacies from the Netherlands, photos and paintings of windmills and tulips, wooden shoes, and occasional “Welkom Vrienden” (Welcome Friends) signs.
Dutch immigrants from a conservative Protestant sect chose this “little Holland” in western Michigan more than 150 years ago in part for its isolation. They wanted to keep “American” influences away from their people, and their orthodox ways of running their community. Many of their traditions have lasted generations. Until recently, Holland restaurants couldn’t sell alcohol on Sundays. Residents are not allowed to yell or whistle between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. If city officials decide that a fence or a shed signals decay, they might tear it down, and mail the owner a bill. Grass clippings longer than eight inches have to be removed and composted, and snow must be shoveled as soon as it lands on the streets. Most people say that rules like these help keep Holland prosperous, with low unemployment, low crime rates, good city services, excellent schools, and Republicans at almost every government post. It’s also where President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos, grew up.
Sitting in his spacious downtown office suite, Arlyn Lanting is eager to talk about his longtime friend, who will begin confirmation hearings Tuesday to become the nation’s top-ranking education official. DeVos is married to Amway scion Dick DeVos (whose father, Richard DeVos, is worth more than $5 billion, according to Forbes) and is seen as a controversial choice due to her track record of supporting vouchers for private, religious schools; right-wing Christian groups like the Foundation for Traditional Values, which has pushed to soften the separation of church and state; and organizations like Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has championed the privatization of the education system.
President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos at a January rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan Paul Sancya/AP
But Lanting, a tall, 75-year-old businessman, investor, and local philanthropist, is quick to wave off the notion that DeVos has it out for traditional public schools. “Betsy is not against public schools,” he says. “She does believe that teachers in charter and private schools are much more likely to lead the way toward better education—the kind that will actually prepare students for our current times and move us away from standardization and testing. But Dick and Betsy have given money to public schools, too.”
Lanting is a warm and generous host who’s quick to point out his favorite Bible verse, painted right there on his wall: “‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the Truth’ (3 John 4).” He and Betsy were both raised in the tradition of the Christian Reformed Church—a little-known, conservative Dutch Calvinist denomination whose roots reach back to the city’s founders. They went to the same grade school in the city’s parallel private school system, the Holland Christian Schools, which was first established by members of the church. Like many people I met in Holland, Lanting wasn’t a Trump supporter initially—he voted for Ben Carson in the primaries—but he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton, whom he calls “a professional spin doctor.” “Trump is much more likely,” Lanting says, “to bring Christ into the world.”
For deeply devout people like Lanting and DeVos, that’s no small detail, and education plays a key role in that mission. Since her nomination, DeVos hasn’t said much publicly about her views on education—or whether she plans to defend the separation of church and state in public schools. (DeVos declined Mother Jones‘ request for an interview, but a Trump transition team spokeswoman replied in an email, “Mrs. DeVos believes in the legal doctrine of the separation of church and state.”) However, in a 2001 interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, she and her husband offered a rare public glimpse of their views. Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on philanthropic dollars—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos replied: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…versus what is currently being spent every year on education in this country…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”
Said Dick DeVos: “As we look at many communities in our country, the church has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity…It is certainly our hope that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”
Although the DeVoses have rarely commented on how their religious views affect their philanthropy and political activism, their spending speaks volumes. Mother Jones has analyzed the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation’s tax filings from 2000 to 2014, as well as the 2001 to 2014 filings from her parents’ charitable organization, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. (Betsy DeVos was vice president of the Prince Foundation during those years.) During that period, the DeVoses spent nearly $100 million in philanthropic giving, and the Princes spent $70 million. While Dick and Betsy DeVos have donated large amounts to hospitals, health research, and arts organizations, these records show an overwhelming emphasis on funding Christian schools and evangelical missions, and conservative, free-market think tanks, like the Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center, that want to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education.
The couple’s philanthropic record makes clear that they view choice and competition as the best mechanism to improve America’s education system. Overall, their foundation gave $5.2 million from 1999 to 2014 to charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but governed by appointed boards and often run by private companies with varying degrees of oversight by state institutions. Some $4.8 million went to a small school they founded, the West Michigan Aviation Academy. (Flying is one of Dick’s passions.) Their next biggest beneficiary, New Urban Learning—an operator that dropped its charter after teachers began to unionize—received $350,000; big-name charter operators Success Academy and KIPP Foundation received $25,000 and $500, respectively.
Meanwhile, when it comes to traditional public schools run by the districts and accountable to democratically elected school boards—the ones that 86 percent of American students attend—the DeVoses were far less generous: Less than 1 percent of their funding ($59,750) went to support these schools. (To be fair, few philanthropists donate directly to underfunded public school districts.)
But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2,396,525 to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s Kingdom” through education.
Most people I meet in Holland tell me that it’s hard to understand the DeVos and Prince families without learning something about the history of Dutch Americans in western Michigan. In the mid-1800s, a group of mostly poor farmers, known as the “Seceders,” rebelled against the Dutch government when it tried to modernize the state Calvinist church, including changing the songbooks used during worship and ending discriminatory laws against Catholics and Jews. In 1846, an intensely devout Calvinist priest named A.C. van Raalte led several hundred settlers from the Netherlands to the United States.
Those who ended up in western Michigan overcame hunger and disease to clear thickly wooded, swampy land with much colder winters and deeper snow than their native Netherlands. In the city of Holland, they built a virtual replica of their Dutch villages. And just like back home, their church was essentially their government, influencing almost every part of farmers’ lives.
Ten years after first Seceders came to Holland, one-third of the Dutch community broke off from the Reformed Church of America and created the Christian Reformed Church. What really solidified this split were disagreements over education, according to James D. Bratt, professor emeritus at Calvin College and author of Dutch Calvinism in Modern America. Members who stayed in the Reformed Church of America supported public schools; Christian Reformed Church members believed that education is solely the responsibility of families—and explicitly not the government—and sent their kids to religious schools.
It was the Christian Reformed Church that opened Holland Christian Schools and Calvin College in nearby Grand Rapids. Betsy DeVos, 59, is an alum of both and was raised in 1960s and 1970s in the Christian Reformed tradition. (Her brother, Erik Prince, is a former Navy SEAL and the founder of Blackwater, the private-security contractor infamous for its role during the Iraq War.) During those years, that often meant growing up in a home that forbade dancing, movies, drinking, working on Sundays, or even participating in the city’s May Tulip Festival, with its Dutch folk costumes and dancing in wooden shoes. Holland Christian Schools’ ban on teaching evolution wasn’t lifted until 1991, according to Larry Ten Harmsel, the author of Dutch in Michigan. (DeVos left the Christian Reformed Church about a decade ago and has been a member of the evangelical Mars Hill Bible Church.)
When the 1960s cultural revolution rocked the nation, many members of the Christian Reformed Church—including Betsy’s parents, who would become one of the richest couples in Michigan thanks to Edgar’s automotive parts company—allied themselves with the evangelical movement. While the Princes would go on to contribute to some of the country’s most powerful far-right religious groups, like the Family Research Council, Betsy and Dick DeVos eventually focused on funding education reform groups and think tanks pushing for vouchers, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars through their foundation to organizations seeking to privatize education and blur the separation of church and state in public schools, including:
• Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty: Betsy DeVos once served on the board of this Grand Rapids-based think tank, which endorses a blend of religious conservatism and unrestrained capitalism. It is headed by a Catholic priest, Fr. Robert Sirico, who has argued that welfare programs should be replaced by religious charities. In a paper titled “America’s Public Schools: Crisis and Cure,” a former Acton advisory board member named Ronald Nash wrote: “No real progress towards improving American education can occur as long as 90 percent of American children are being taught in government schools that ignore moral and religious beliefs.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation contributed $1,289,750 from 2000 to 2014, and the Prince Foundation donated at least $550,000.
• The Foundation for Traditional Values: Led by former priest James Muffett, the organization is the education arm of Citizens for Traditional Values, a political action group whose mission is preserving “the influence of faith and family as the great foundation of American freedom embodied in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” On the website dedicated to Muffett’s seminars, a page devoted to a lecture titled “The Greatest Story Never Told” states: “There was a time when schoolchildren were taught the truth about the Christian influence in our foundations but no longer. Our past has been hijacked by a secular philosophy, and we have lost the original vision, ideas, and principles of our forefathers who gave birth to the greatest free nation the world has ever seen.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation contributed $232,390 from 1999 to 2014.
• Focus on the Family: Both the DeVoses and the Princes have been key supporters of Focus on the Family, which was founded by the influential evangelical leader James Dobson. In a 2002 radio broadcast, Dobson called on parents in some states to to pull their kids out of public schools, calling the curriculum “godless and immoral” and suggesting that Christian teachers should also leave public schools: “I couldn’t be in an organization that’s supporting that kind of anti-Christian nonsense.” Dobson also has distributed a set of history lessons that argue that “separating Christianity from government is virtually impossible and would result in unthinkable damage to the nation and its people.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave $275,000 to Focus on the Family from 1999 to 2001 but hasn’t donated since; it gave an additional $35,760 to the group’s Michigan and DC affiliates from 2001 to 2010. The Prince Foundation donated $5.2 million to Focus on the Family and $275,000 to its Michigan affiliate from 2001 to 2014. (It also gave $6.1 million to the Family Research Council, which has fought against same-sex marriage and anti-bullying programs—and is listed as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The FRC used to be a division of Focus on the Family before it became an independent nonprofit, with Dobson serving on its board, in 1992.)
Meanwhile, the DeVos clan is perhaps best known for aggressive political activism against organized labor. A 2014 Mother Jones investigation revealed that the DeVoses had invested at least $200 million in various right-wing causes: think thanks, media outlets, political committees, and advocacy groups. In 2007, coming off Dick’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in their home state of Michigan, the DeVoses focused their advocacy and philanthropy on controversial right-to-work legislation that outlawed contracts requiring all employees in unionized workplaces to pay dues for union representation. Back in 2007, such a proposal in a union-heavy state like Michigan was considered a “right-wing fantasy,” but thanks to the DeVoses’ aggressive strategy and funding, the bill became law by 2012.
Right-to-work laws, now on the books in 26 states, have been a major blow to the labor movement—including teachers’ unions, the most powerful lobby for traditional public schools and opponents of charter schools (whose instructors often aren’t unionized). Teachers in Michigan are not allowed to strike; when educators in Detroit demanded a forensic audit of their district’s murky finances and protested classrooms plagued by mold, roaches, and rodents, they used sick days to make their point. A month later, Betsy DeVos wrote a Detroit News op-ed arguing that teachers shouldn’t be allowed to stage sick-outs, either.
DeVos in 1992 Detroit Free Press/Zuma
Which brings us back to Michigan, “school choice,” charter schools, and vouchers. Betsy DeVos has spent at least two decades pushing vouchers—i.e., public funding to pay for private and religious schools—to the center of the Republican Party’s education agenda, thanks in large part to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based think tank.
In the mid-’90s, Mackinac leadership suggested a long-term strategy on how to make the unpopular voucher policies more palatable for the mainstream America. Its then-senior vice president, Joseph Overton, developed what became known as the Overton Window, a theory of how a policy initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion. Education policies were placed on a liberal-conservative continuum, with the far left representing “Compulsory indoctrination in government schools” and the far right, “No government schools.”
Charter schools became the main tool of voucher advocates to introduce school choice to public school supporters, with the aim to nudge public opinion closer to supporting tax credits to pay for private schools. Since about 80 percent of American students outside the public system attend religious schools, “universal choice”—or allowing taxpayer money to follow individual students to any private or public school—could eventually mean financing thousands of Christian schools.
In Michigan, Detroit has been at the heart of the charter push, which began in the early ’90s. In 1996, former Metro Times reporter Curt Guyette showed how the Prince Foundation, as well as the foundation run by Dick DeVos’ parents, funded a carefully orchestrated campaign to label Detroit’s public schools as failing—and pushed for charters and “universal educational choice” as a better alternative. While Betsy DeVos has not called for an end to traditional public schools, she has written about the need to “retire” and “replace” Detroit’s public school system and pressed for aggressively expanding charter schools and vouchers. (In 2000, Dick and Betsy DeVos helped underwrite a ballot initiative to expand the use of vouchers in Michigan and lost badly.)
Detroit’s schools—where 84 percent of students are black and 80 percent are poor—have been in steady decline since charter schools started proliferating: Public school test scores in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained the worst among large cities since 2009. In June, the New York Times published a scathing investigation of the city’s school district, which has the second-biggest share of students in charters in America. (New Orleans is No. 1.) Reporter Kate Zernike concluded that lax oversight by state and insufficiently regulated growth—including too many agencies that are allowed to open new charter schools—contributed to a system with “lots of choice, with no good choice.”
Statewide, about 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, a much higher share than anywhere else in the country. And two years ago, DeVos fought aggressively against legislation that would stop failing charter schools from expanding, and she and her husband were the biggest financial backers of the effort to oppose any new state oversight of charters.
“School choice” is now accepted by nearly two-thirds of Americans—although 69 percent oppose using public funding for private schools. Donald Trump’s signature education proposal calls for dedicating $20 billion in federal money to promote “school choice” to help families move away from what the he has called our “failing government schools” and instead choose private, religious, or charter schools. With most states under Republican leadership and some major charter school proponents signaling their willingness to work with the Trump administration, the stage is set for an aggressive push to lift state caps on charter schools (26 states have some kind of charter cap) and expand voucher programs (13 states and the District of Columbia have active programs). In 2008, then-DC Public Schools chancellor and staunch charter school advocate Michelle Rhee—whom Trump also considered for the position of education chief—refused to express support for vouchers. By 2013, she’d made her support public.
It’s hard to tell how many more charter advocates will support—or simply overlook—the inclusion of vouchers for private schools in “choice” policies, but one thing is clear: The prospects for an aggressive policy push for “universal choice”—including funding more religious schools with taxpayer money—have never been better.
Betsy and Dick DeVos and three of their children at Michigan’s Republican conventions in 2006 Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/Zuma
On my last day in Holland, a retired public school teacher, Cathy Boote, is giving me a tour of the city she has called home for 37 years. Dressed in a black cashmere sweater and a white winter jacket, Boote is a self-described moderate Republican and teachers’ union member who went to public schools and later taught art in the nearby West Ottawa public school district. In her close to four decades of working in public schools, she saw how the decline of the automotive industry, and the hollowing out of the middle class, affected poor and working-class kids she taught more than any other factor. “When parents have to work longer hours, more jobs, and get paid less, there is more stress at home,” Boote reflected. “That means less time to read and do homework, more time spent watching TV and online rather than learning.”
“Betsy’s father, Edgar Prince, is considered the patron saint of Holland,” Boote says as our truck rolls over heated asphalt—a unique underground grid of tubes circulates hot water beneath the streets and melts snowflakes just as they touch down. It was Prince who helped bring this innovative system here, suggesting the heated streets in 1988 and forking over $250,000 to cover nearly a quarter of the cost. Like Boote, most Hollanders I talked to credit Prince’ vision for the city’s transformation in the ’90s to a tourist destination.
It was this business acumen, and a drive to take care of “our people,” that turned Prince into the wealthiest man in Michigan. In 1965, Prince left his job as chief engineer at Buss Machine Works after workers decided to unionize. He opened his own company that eventually specialized in auto-parts manufacturing and became one of the biggest employers in Holland. When Prince Automotive was sold for $1.35 billion in 1997, two years after his death, some 4,500 former employees received a combined $80 million in bonuses. “Most people here feel that you build your own family. You don’t need a union to build a competing family,” Boote explains, adjusting her glasses. “You treat your employees well and they don’t need to complain. Complaining, protesting is bad. You work hard and you don’t complain.”
Boote’s truck takes a sharp turn into the predominantly Latino section of town, with large, free-standing Victorian cottages, fenceless yards, and ancient trees. Most kids in this neighborhood go to public schools. In the two decades since school choice was implemented, white student enrollment in Holland’s public schools has plummeted 60 percent, according to Bridge Magazine. Latino students are now the face of the system, and 70 percent of all students are poor, more than double the district’s poverty rate when choice began. The Holland Christian Schools are predominantly white.
We leave downtown and drive along Lake Macatawa for about three miles before parking in front of a huge, castlelike mansion. This is Betsy and Dick DeVos’ summer home—a three-story, 22,000-square-foot estate that the Holland Sentinel once boasted was the the biggest in the city, if not the county.
As we look out at the stone-and-shingle house, Boote reflects on how most people around here—her family, Betsy DeVos’ family—grew up among proud Dutch immigrants who overcame deep poverty. DeVos went on to attend a small, elite, mostly white private religious school, and a similar college. She married into a rich dynasty.
“‘Look at us. God has given to us. I can fix this. All you have to do is be like me.’ You can understand how you might think that way, if you grew up here,” Boote says later, as we take one final glance at the mansion over its tall, iron gate. “If you come from the small, sheltered, privileged environment of Holland, you are most likely going to have a very limited worldview—including how to fix education.”
Holland, Michigan, in summer Craig Sterken/iStock