Classical educators optimistic about DeVos appointment, proposed policies

“We can’t look to Washington to save us. We can look for them to help remove barriers to offer more options for teachers and families.”

Betsy DeVos is seen in Washington Feb. 7 prior to being sworn in as the US education secretary at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Citing her commitment to parental choice and subsidiarity, classical educators said they believe newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has the opportunity to do good and end the “one-size fits all” approach to education coming from Washington, DC.

“We are excited,” Dr. Daniel Scoggin, co-founder of Great Hearts Academies, said of DeVos’ support of parental choice in education. “A basic principle we believe in, and our model supports, is that parents are dearly valued in the education of their students. Parents are the first educators in shaping their children’s hearts and minds.”

Scoggin encouraged DeVos to “support the removal of regulatory barriers for charter schools that have shown academic excellence.” He added that it is important to not only monitor how federal funding dollars are invested, but to give “resources to those schools that are having the most impact.” Great Hearts Academies are a network of classical public charter schools; they have an average student SAT score of 1833. Ninety-five percent of Great Hearts graduates opt for college, and 53 percent of those students pursue majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The majority of those college-bound students receive scholarships, Scoggin said.

In March DeVos praised a budget proposal by President Donald Trump that would cut Department of Education funding by $9 billion but give $1.4 billion to school choice policies and programs. That would include a $168 million increase to charter schools, and “$250 million for a new school choice program centered around private schools,” according to US News and World Report.

Dr. Andrew Seeley, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which has worked with hundreds of Catholic schools across the country, said his impressions of DeVos as education secretary are favorable overall.

“Archbishop Michael Miller said parents must be free to fulfill their responsibility as being primary educators of their children,” Seeley said, adding that he is also strongly in favor of local control of education, which he believes is essential for education to flourish in our country.

“It’s hypocritical for presidents and office holders to limit choices parents have, and then choose to send their children to private schools,” Seeley said. He said since DeVos has the strength to fight for parental choice against an “incredibly strong education establishment,” he looks for “good things from her.”

DeVos’ appointment has the potential to affect classical homeschooling, as well. One homeschooling program that could be affected is Kolbe Academy, which offers traditional, online, or self-paced classical Catholic home-education programs for grades K-12. The programs are customizable to meet the unique needs of families.

In an email interview with CWR, Kolbe Academy Executive Director Brian Muth wrote, “As a Catholic home schooling program, Kolbe Academy is dedicated to freedom of school choice for parents under the principle of subsidiarity.” As a result, he said they are “truly excited to have a secretary of education in Betsy DeVos who supports school choice, including referring to homeschooling as a ‘perfectly valid educational option,’ one that ‘puts parents back in charge of their kids’ education.’” Muth credited Kolbe Academy’s orthodox Catholic curriculum and passionate faculty and staff with aiding parents in shaping their children’s intellectual and spiritual formation. “Homeschooling is indeed a wonderful, essential option for parents, and it is fantastic to have a vocal advocate in Secretary DeVos,” he said. “We hope and pray that homeschooling only grows in popularity and availability under her leadership.”

DeVos has also been a longtime proponent of federal vouchers. Seeley and Muth said they can see the pros and cons of the voucher debate.

“In a general way something like vouchers secures justice,” said Seeley. “It’s unjust for parents to be forced to send their kids to schools determined by the government. On the other hand, vouchers can be dangerous for schools that accept them, because the vouchers can be taken away, and as good as DeVos could be, she won’t be there forever.”

Seeley said an even more likely scenario would be one in which Catholic schools, homeschool families, or homeschooling programs would be required to teach certain subjects or topics, or be forbidden from studying certain subjects, if federal vouchers are utilized. He said he could envision a scenario in which a Catholic school that does not allow a student group that ignores Church teachings is forced to do so once it acceptsvouchers.

Muth said he thinks vouchers are “essentially the only way to break apart the public school near-monopoly on education.” He added that anything that rescues children from failing public schools would be a good thing. “If Secretary DeVos is able to promote implementation of voucher programs, especially if this is extended to homeschool programs, that would be an excellent beginning to reforming education.”

“Vouchers have a proven track record of benefiting underprivileged youth whose educational options are otherwise extremely limited,” Muth said.

Like Seeley, Muth agreed there is a risk that homeschooling programs and homeschooling families utilizing vouchers could be forced by the federal or even state government to teach or not teach certain subjects or curricula. He said at that point, it would be a matter of homeschooling programs or families making the decision to participate in a voucher program under those conditions or not.

The educators CWR spoke with also expressed hope that DeVos will end federal support of Common Core state standards.

“States are in the best position to make curriculum choices,” Scoggin said. “Parents and teachers in local communities are in the best position to influence the standards that define a great education.”

Seeley said it would be best if the role of the federal government in education could be reduced, because, as the courts have decided, the government can only be involved in education if it’s secular.

“It cuts out religion almost entirely,” Seeley said. “They have to educate without realizing students have souls with an eternal destiny.”

At the collegiate level, Seeley said Secretary DeVos should do all she can to encourage freedom of speech on college campuses. “If colleges are found to be aggressively limiting free speech in the name of political correctness”—if a professor is denied tenure, for example— “the Department of Education should look into that.”

Another problem connected to higher education centers around homeschooling and discrimination.

“Currently, some states don’t accept homeschooled students—by and large, it’s hard for homeschooled students to get into the University of California system, for example,” Seeley said.

Criticism of DeVos

It’s important for DeVos to encourage authentic liberal arts education, Seeley said. When people say they want to reform schools, they generally mean giving them an immersion in math, technology and business, while “ignoring the most important thing in education—forming people’s character,” Seeley said.

Critics have argued that DeVos’ performance during Senate confirmation hearings demonstrates she is not qualified to be education secretary. Muth said he is not overly concerned.

“We are accustomed to slick politicians who know exactly what to say, whether they mean it nor not,” Muth said. “On the other hand, the public educational system has proven one thing—more of the same is not the solution. So, while it would improve her credibility to ‘talk the talk,’ ‘walking the walk’ is far more important.”

Scoggin said he thought DeVos’ confirmation hearings were more of a political exercise than a discussion about education. He added that he has heard DeVos speak several times before she was tapped to be education secretary, and was impressed by what he heard at those talks.

“She is knowledgeable,” Scoggin said. “She knows what quality education consists of—that parents and teachers are what make for quality education.”

“DeVos’ hearing was the most contentious,” Seeley said. “That shows how seriously the Left sees education.”

What is a Catholic’s responsibility toward public schools?

“I think that as Catholics, we should support education for all,” Seeley said. “That does not mean we should support government-run education for all.”

He said Catholics have many options in this respect, including supporting vouchers, supporting Catholic schools, making private tuition such that families can afford it, and supporting foundations that offer scholarships to students.

“None of this means we have to support government-run schools,” Seeley said. “Waste and abuse of power are two problems with government doing anything. The secular character of the legal structure has made it where schools have to be secular.”

Is it morally wrong to take one’s child out of a school that is struggling, because it will make the school that much worse?

“It’s not right to force parents to use their children as a moral leavening for a bad environment,” Seeley said.

“We support public schools via our tax dollars, without receiving any personal benefit, of course,” Muth said. “Competition is the best way to reform the public educational system, and vouchers would open the public system to greater competition and force the public schools to improve. I would not mandate private school for all, but we have an obligation to ensure that our tax dollars are being spent wisely.”

“Where to educate one’s children is an inherently private decision,” Muth continued. “I am extremely sympathetic to the idea that anything which even potentially endangers the salvation of our children must be avoided. If that is what parents see in the public schools, then by all means they should not put their children into those schools…. The public system tends to call out, ‘If we only had more resources…’ but, despite ever-increasing funding, those schools continue to fail. I am not a fan of throwing good money after bad.”

Seeley said Catholics have a responsibility to ensure public schools are making good contributions to society as a whole.

“Christians need to be vigilant about the public schools,” Seeley said. “They really need to make sure their public schools are not oppressively secular, are not promoting progressive indoctrination. If 85 percent of adults have been educated in that way, then our religious liberty is going to be lost. We need to do this for our own good, and for the good of the children being educated in their system.”

Perhaps this is where charter schools like Great Hearts Academies can make a difference. “We are trying to re-democratize what was once the best way to educate children,” Scoggin said.  “Sometimes people hear ‘classical’ and think we are just focused on the past. Far from it. The great ideas of justice, of friendship, of how to live well together in community are more important than ever today. People today are looking for meaning, but at the same time, we are being overwhelmed with information. Our students love the study of philosophy, of the liberal arts and sciences, because they ask the essential questions: what does it mean to be a human being? Of what does human flourishing consist?”

“We believe a classical education is the best way to learn because it appeals to the whole child, their desire to pursue truth and beauty,” Scoggin continued. “We are all created to be good. We all desire to be good. Pursuing truth, goodness and beauty appeals to the whole person. Classical education establishes a foundation on which to build a happy and purpose-driven life.”

The Great Hearts curriculum includes the study of the great texts and ideas of the Western Tradition, including the writings of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine as well as modern authors such as More, Shakespeare, Locke, Austen, and Dostoyevsky. All students study Latin, and many also pursue Greek.  Advanced math and science are also core classes, alongside a robust arts program.

Located in Arizona and Texas, Great Hearts serve families of all backgrounds, including diverse faith traditions. They also enroll a number of homeschool families who opt to use the charter school for middle school or high school. A lottery at each school decides which students are chosen for enrollment, with the remaining students put on a waiting list.

“We receive state money in Texas and Arizona, and we have received federal startup grants in the past and currently receive supplemental funds to serve low-income students, such as the school lunch program,” Scoggin said.

“The government has an appropriate role in making sure all students have access to a quality education, and are treated with dignity,” he continued. “That’s the belief of public education. I think the government should keep working on that. I think the government gets in trouble when it says ‘one size fits all.’ The government should keep in mind they should reward the success of what is working best.”

“Remove regulatory barriers to high performance charter schools in the states and across the country that have long wait lists, so they can grow,” Scoggin said.  In addition to supporting funding that will allow high-performing charter schools to grow, “work with parents and teachers to find best pathway to a great education,” he said.

“We believe classical education is the best way to fly,” Scoggin said. “Others see it differently. The education secretary is not a savior, and neither is the president. We can’t look to Washington to save us. We can look for help from them to remove barriers to offer more options for teachers and families.”

About Leslie Fain 16 Articles
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons.

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