Betsy DeVos, Focus on the Family, and our Public Schools

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From 1998 to 2010, Betsy DeVos and her family’s foundations donated millions dollars to Focus on the Family. A decade earlier, she and her parents gave the organization funds to launch its political lobbying firm, the Family Research Council. Their donations helped transform Focus on the Family from a small organization centered on James Dobson’s conservative Christian parenting books into a multimedia empire with syndicated radio broadcasts, a publishing house, and an extensive online presence that promotes and echo-chambers its conservative Christian worldview. The immense investments in Focus by DeVos and her family reveal her deep connection to the ideals of the organization and to Dobson himself, who was its CEO until 2009. When DeVos states, “If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child . . . we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative,” we should not assume that she agrees with most educators on the definition of what constitutes a “great public school” or an “unsafe” one.

Due to her financial support of Focus on the Family, it is reasonable to believe that her priorities align closely with Dobson’s. A closer look at Dobson’s public efforts to bring conservative Christian perspectives into the public conversation about schools will make the differences in these pivotal definitions more apparent.

Beginning in 1970, with his bestselling childrearing book Dare to Discipline, Dobson has attempted to transform the American family and the American school system from one centered on children and multicultural pluralism to one centered on his conservative understanding of biblical truth. His ultimate goal for students is not to increase their critical thinking skills but to ensure that they can achieve salvation and help bring the nation closer to his theological ideal. Dobson includes chapters such as “Discipline in the Classroom” and “The Barriers to Learning,” criticizing the consequences of an education system centered on societal rather than divine goals.

This book was written during the era of ongoing racial desegregation and protest, but he addresses these questions obliquely by highlighting the consequences of permissive leadership in public schools. Dobson, for instance, linked the Supreme Court’s rulings that removed religious devotion in the schools to an increase in disciplinary problems.

He seeks to redress this by advocating that teachers enforce their authority. In Dobson’s view, teachers, like parents, teach through role modeling:  teachers must embody their divine role as leaders to whom children must submit while also teaching curricula that reflects God’s Truth—a truth that must be embodied but never questioned.

Focus supported Christians attending public schools through the 1990s, even as these schools were embracing pluralism and representing their diversifying student body in their curricula. Dobson and Focus argued that public schools gave Christian students and teachers an opportunity to influence liberal Christians and non-Christians through words and actions. They pushed these public-school missionaries to advocate for a curriculum that reflected their values. The appropriate curriculum for Dobson was the narrative that he learned in school in the 1950s and 60s: histories of triumphant white Christian men modeling leadership qualities as they built an exceptional nation of founded on democracy, economic strength, and military might.

In 2002, however, Dobson called for parents to remove their children from public schools after students in one California district attended a play that included the lines “I’m gay and that’s okay.”

In representing the Christians parents’ perspective, Dobson emphasized that the school had ignored the Christian students’ (eternal) safety in favor of the (immediate) safety of others. The school, he argued, had put the children at risk of imitating the attitudes of their teachers, actors in these dramas, and friends who were no longer forced to hide their sexuality. Such imitations of any non-heterosexual conduct, Focus has long taught, disobeyed God by rejecting divinely-ordained conventional gender roles. With the risk of damnation looming and efforts at reform failing, Dobson urged parents to do what he did in 1973 when the American Psychological Association voted to depathologize homosexuality–drop out in protest to promote Christian alternatives.

During the many decades that DeVos family has financially supported Focus, the organization has shared its vision with Betsy DeVos and other supporters of what constitutes a great school:

great schools center around a singular narrative of America driven by the stories of great (white Christian) men; great schools teach curricula and employ teachers who act as “safe” heterosexual role models for students; and great schools teach children to submit to adults rather than challenge them.

Unsafe schools do the opposite, teaching critical thinking, multiple truths, and modeling a variety of ways to be ethical men, women, and transgender citizens.

 

— Susan B. Ridgely is associate professor of American religion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Practicing what the Doctor Preached: At Home with Focus on the Family (Oxford, 2016).

Photo by Matthew