Feb. 2, 2017 – Betsy DeVos had a rocky Senate confirmation hearing in committee before the panel split along party lines while voting to send Trump’s nominee for education secretary to the full Senate. Subsequently, two Republicans who took part in the hearing, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, say they won’t back DeVos again. According to Education Week, a final vote has been called for next week.
No Democrats are on record saying they will vote for her and activists are targeting GOP senators, such as Deb Fischer of Nebraska, whom they suspect might join Collins and Murkowski in opposing the nominee. Senators who say they will reject DeVos most often say their opposition comes from her lack of qualifications and her poor grasp of policy issues. But there’s lots more to DeVos’s wacky views on education.
Much has been written about DeVos’s deep ties to evangelical Christianity and her commitment to push an education agenda to “advance God’s Kingdom.” Supporters of DeVos insist her religious devotion reflects concerns about children and what’s best for the public and not an intention to “focus on curriculum issues like evolution and creationism,” according to this story in The Washington Post.
But recent revelations in major news outlets should raise alarms about DeVos’s views on science and how they may influence her decision-making on national education policy.
In her charitable giving, her financial investments, and the rhetoric she uses to express her intentions as secretary, DeVos has exhibited a propensity to favor beliefs ground in quack science over the real thing.
Christian-Based ‘Critical Thinking’
One of those concerns is the affinity DeVos has long had for organizations that push “intelligent design,” an idea grounded in creationist beliefs that the universe and life on earth must have been created by an entity with superior intelligence.
As Annie Waldman reports for independent news outlet ProPublica, DeVos and her family donated more than a $1 million to The Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based Christian legal group that represented a school district being sued because its conservative school board insisted ninth-grade students be taught “the theory of evolution was flawed and that intelligent design was an alternative.”
Waldman also notes donations the DeVos family has made to Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based evangelical group that “produced a religious video series with one episode focused on intelligent design and Darwinian evolution critiques.”
Senators have not asked DeVos many questions about her views on science. However, during her confirmation hearing, DeVos revealed a lot when she responded to a question from Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) who wanted to know if she would oppose education policies based on junk science. Her evasive response conspicuously used the term “critical thinking” which conservative Christian groups use as code words when they push intelligent design in school curriculum.
As Waldman explains, DeVos and other advocates of intelligent design disguise their religious intentions to undermine evolution as support for “critical thinking” in schools. They insist presenting evolution as a scientific fact is “dogmatic,” and what teachers must do instead is present “alternative views” like intelligent design and require students to sort it out for themselves
DeVos also aspires to establish broad federal support for school vouchers. If she succeeds at that goal, it would advance religious-based instruction while diverting millions of dollars in taxpayer money to private schools, including religious schools that teach creationism.
DeVos’s support for “critical thinking” as a veiled reference to her belief that students in federally funded schools be taught creationism in class coincides with a “new wave of anti-evolution bills” being introduced by state Republican lawmakers across the country, according to The Hill.
“About 70 similar measures questioning evolution have been introduced in states across the country” since 2004, the report says. All of these bills have been modeled on the idea that schools should present “alternatives to evolution” in “objective” ways that invite discussion and “critical thinking.” So far, “two states — Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012 — have passed measures allowing teachers to question the theory of evolution.”
Biofeedback Cures With Biblical Inspiration
The devotion DeVos has to junk science isn’t confined to intelligent design.
As the New York Times reports, DeVos and her family have invested heavily in a retail chain that claims to use biofeedback to improve “brain performance” and treat depression and developmental disabilities such as ADHD and autism.
As Times reporters Sheri Fink, Steve Eder, and Matthew Goldstein write, DeVos and her husband, Dick, are the chief investors in Neurocore, a business that operates eight centers in Michigan and Florida that claim to “retrain the brains” of “children and adults with ADHD, anxiety, depression, autism and other psychological and neurological diagnose.”
Neurocore’s techniques, the article notes, “are not considered standards of care for the majority of the disorders it treats, including autism,” and the Times reporters consulted “nearly a dozen child psychiatrists and psychologists with expertise in autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, [who] expressed caution regarding some of Neurocore’s assertions, advertising, and methods.”
Times reporters note DeVos insists on retaining her investment in the company, “which she valued at $5 million to $25 million,” should she be confirmed. But her commitment to Neurocore may have more to do with something other than her financial investment.
As a Michigan-based blogger reports, Neurocore’s ideas, like many of DeVos’s fascinations, have “Christian fundamentalist roots.”
The blogger, who goes by Miss Fortune, points out the original name of Neurocore was Hope 139 which Fortune calls “a dog-whistle reference to Psalm 139” and Christian fundamentalist beliefs. As evidence, Fortune points to a press release from when Hope 139 debuted that describes the company’s mission to “assist each individual in reaching his or her God-given cognitive potential.”
Fortune notes, “Psalm 139 has been a byword of the anti-abortion movement.” And as further investigation bears out, the Bible verse is often presented as proof that life begins at conception.
Why DeVos’s Views On Science Matter
So would DeVos, who in her confirmation hearings, exhibited an acute misunderstanding of the federal government’s role in supporting the education of students with disabilities, promote quack science ideas from outfits like Neurocore to the nation’s schools?
We’ve seen the federal government promote these kinds of completely unfounded ideas before.
Although the Constitution prohibits the federal government from creating school curriculum, the department DeVos may be leading has considerable influence and money to influence science education programs in K-12 schools. The Education Department spends millions to fund over 30 science-related grant programs influencing research and training, instruction for student with learning disabilities, access for special student populations, and STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math).
And while it’s true new federal legislation curbs some of the powers of the education secretary and hands over more responsibilities to states, DeVos would likely be ideologically aligned with a great many conservative Republican governors who have bought into the same bizarre ideas she has.
Last, should she and Trump be successful in their plan to provide states $20 billion for “school choice” programs that include vouchers for religious schools, she may be completely unperturbed to learn, as a consequence of her decisions, some of that taxpayer money is being used to teach students “alternate facts” in science classes.
What Would You Do?
In an op-ed on a popular science news website, Ann Reid and Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education fear Devos as secretary of education would “dilute science instruction in schools.”
They argue, “A few loud voices dismissing science can be enough to intimidate teachers into diluting their treatment of evolution and climate change, permanently short-changing a generation of science learners.
“Put yourself in a teacher’s shoes,” they suggest, and imagine bringing up a subject such as evolution, that is based on factual evidence, and then have it questioned by students—and then potentially by their parents and the district’s school board—who have heard from political leaders, including the secretary of education, that your lesson plans could use a little more “critical thinking.”
What would you do?
Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website.
The Campaign for America’s Future is the strategy center for the progressive movement. Our goal is to forge the enduring progressive majority needed to realize the America of shared prosperity and equal opportunity that our country was meant to be. www.ourfuture.org