After a rocky confirmation hearing in Senate committee, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, cleared to the full Senate on a vote that strictly followed party lines. But now, two Republican Senators who voted DeVos out of committee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, say they can’t back DeVos in a full Senate vote. Education Week reporters say a final vote has been called for next week, so her nomination is still up in the air.
Senators, including the two maverick Republicans, who say they will vote no on 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 whacky views of 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.” But 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 linked to creationist beliefs that the universe and life must have been created by a 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 is code word for pushing 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 science 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
Their support for school vouchers, another favorite passion of DeVos’s, also advances religious-based instruction as it diverts millions in taxpayer money to private schools, including religious schools that teach creationist ideas like intelligent design.
DeVos’s use of the “critical thinking” code word 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,” the report says, all modeled on the idea that schools should present “alternatives to evolution” in “objective” ways that invite discussion and “critical thinking.”
The devotion DeVos has to junk science isn’t confined to intelligent design.
Biofeedback Cures With Biblical Inspiration
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 US 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?