Dear Betsy DeVos: The Religious Right’s Education Agenda

The Council for National Policy—a secretive network of right-wing religious and political leaders that shares and shapes conservative political strategies—has an ambitious policy agenda for Betsy DeVos, who was confirmed as secretary of the U.S. Department of Education when Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote.

The CNP’s “Education Reform Report” was noticed by education blogger Peter Greene, who calls it “kind of scary.” I’d say, “more than kind of.”

The group’s big picture goal is to eliminate what it calls “the worst abuses in current state systems” while promoting “a gradual, voluntary return at all levels to free-market private schools, church schools and home schools as the normative American practice.”

Sounds a bit like the late Jerry Falwell’s dream that he would live to see the day when “we won’t have any public schools” because the “churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.” As scholar Julie Ingersoll, author of a book about Christian Reconstructionism, has noted, “It’s been a long-standing goal of the Religious Right to replace public education with Christian education.”

Here are the assumptions on which the CNP’s education committee says its report is based:

  1. All knowledge and facts have a source, a Creator; they are not self-existent.
  2. Religious neutrality is a myth perpetrated by secularists who destroy their own claim the moment they attempt to enforce it.
  3. Parents and guardians bear final responsibility for their children’s education, with the inherent right to teach, or to choose teachers and schools, whether institutional or not.
  4. No civil government possesses the right to overrule the educational choices of parents and guardians.

To these assumptions, the committee adds a pledge:

The CNP Education Committee pledges itself to work toward achievable goals based on uncompromised principles, so that their very success will provoke a popular return to the Judeo-Christian principles of America’s Founders who, along with America’s pioneers, believed that God belonged in the classroom.

The pledge is reminiscent of the rhetoric of Christian-nation extremist and Trump supporter David Lane, who argues that the Bible should be a primary textbook in the nation’s public schools. Lane’s apparent influence is also reflected in the inclusion in the CNP report of the Mayflower Compact, the document Lane and David Barton cite to support their claims that the United States of America has a mission to advance the Christian faith.

The CNP’s action plan calls for dismantling the Department of Education, which it calls “unconstitutional, illegal and contrary to America’s education practice for 300 years from early 17th century to Colonial times.” Until that can be accomplished, the CNP wants an ideological litmus test in place for all staff, including those hired to work in the mailroom.

CNP would like replace the department with a sub-cabinet “advisory council” on reform while eliminating federal financial support for “state-operated schooling.” Among the recommendations the CNP says such a council should make to state departments of education:

  1. Restore Ten Commandments posters to all K-12 public schools.
  2. Clearly post America’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
  3. Encourage K-12 schools to recognize traditional holidays (e.g., Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas) as celebrations of our Judeo-Christian heritage.
  4. Implement select Bible classes, such as Chuck Stetson’s Bible Literacy Project.
  5. Encourage instruction on U.S. and World history from the Judeo-Christian perspective for middle school and high school history and civics classes.
  6. Develop and recommend In-service training on philosophy of education for K-12 faculty based on historical Judeo-Christian philosophy of education.
  7. Strongly push states to remove secular-based sex education materials from school facilities, and emphasize parental instruction.

The CNP plan calls for “school choice in all states (over voucher schemes)”—which is not entirely clear since voucher schemes are one of the mechanisms by which “school choice” advocates divert funds from public schools into private schools and homeschoolers. They may use “school choice” here to mean a formula by which any public funds allocated to education “follow” a student to whatever private school, online cyber school, or homeschool environment a parent chooses.

The plan calls for engaging the Heritage Foundation and mobilizing pastors, Christian media, and other conservative leaders in a campaign to eliminate the department. Among the Religious Right leaders the document specifically calls for engaging are American Pastors Network’s Sam Rohrer, Reclaiming America for Christ’s Paul Blair, and US Pastor Council’s Dave Welch. Blair, who is listed as a member of the education committee, advocates for state officials to “nullify” marriage equality and abortion rights by defying U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Also listed as a member of the committee is right-wing Christian college president Everett Piper.

DeVos and other members of her family have given massive amounts of money to build the Religious Right and right-wing political infrastructure, so there are literally millions of reasons for the CNP to believe that their plan will get respectful consideration from DeVos. As Greene notes, Betsy DeVos’s father-in-law, Amway magnate Richard DeVos Sr., served as CNP’s president twice, once in the 1980s and once in the 1990s.

The CNP is a who’s who of the American right wing in all its anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-government, anti-environmentalist, anti-Muslim, Christian-nationalist glory. Included in a 2014 membership directory obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center are current senior White House officials Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Among the many others are Chad Connelly, faith outreach director for the Republican National Committee; anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney; birtherism and other conspiracy theory promoters Jerome Corsi and Joseph Farah; and neo-Confederate Michael Peroutka.

Also on the list: the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo, who helped Trump select Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Here’s how Greene, whose blog is called Curmudgucation, summarizes the situation:

Bottom line– there’s a group with an explicit plan for destroying the Department of Education and installing theocratic control over US education, and the secretary of Education as well as key folks at the White House are directly tied to that group.

Update: The Washington Post’s Emma Brown has also written about the CNP education plan.

She notes that one of the members of the CNP’s education committee, E. Ray Moore, Jr., founded the Exodus Mandate Project, which encourages Christian families to pull their children out of “godless and pagan” public schools.

Brown got a comment from a spokesperson at the Department of Education who said DeVos “fully supports the mission of the department and applauds the decision by the president of the United States to continue to keep the Department of Education at Cabinet level.”

The plan has been pulled off the CNP’s website, but you can read it here courtesy of RWW. You’re welcome.