DeVos confirmation leaves Baptists hopeful for schools

WASHINGTON (BP) -- With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, some Southern Baptists hope that emphases at the Department of Education will parallel themes expressed in Southern Baptist Convention resolutions on education.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos faced questions about school choice and intelligent design at her Senate confirmation hearing last month.
Screen capture from C-SPAN
DeVos, a Michigan businesswoman long active in conservative politics, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Feb. 7 by a 51-50 vote, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote. Her confirmation marked the first time a vice president has been called upon to break a tie regarding a cabinet nomination.

Much of the opposition to DeVos, according to media reports, stemmed from her support of educational choice, including charter schools and school vouchers. The New York Times noted that neither DeVos nor any of her four children attended public schools though she is now charged with guiding America's public education system.

DeVos also has drawn criticism for supporting pro-family organizations like Focus on the Family and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religious Liberty and having ties to critics of Darwinian evolution.

Some of DeVos' policy views appear to align with sentiments expressed in Southern Baptist Convention resolutions on education adopted in 2014 and 2006.

David Dykes, chairman of the 2014 SBC Resolutions Committee, said he could not comment specifically on DeVos but noted he is "very encouraged by President Trump's choice of people [for cabinet posts] who are outside the circle of politicians and the status quo for these positions. I think he really wants to shake things up, and I'm in favor of doing that."

The 2014 SBC resolution "on the importance of Christ-centered education" encouraged lawmakers “to enact policies and legislation that maximize parental choice and best serve the educational needs and desires of families."

When the resolution was adopted, Dykes, pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, told reporters he did not interpret the statement's language to support vouchers for Christian schools. The committee, he said, intentionally used "ambiguous language."

Dykes said the 2014 Resolutions Committee sought to reflect the general sentiments of Southern Baptists by endorsing "both private Christian education [and] public education as well."

The "mood of the Resolutions Committee and the convention that approved [the resolution] was a feeling of giving parents a good choice."

Regarding science instruction on the universe's origin, Dykes said he would "be much in favor" of any action by DeVos and other Department of Education leaders encouraging schools to present Darwinian evolution "as a scientific theory that is one of several alternatives."

DeVos has not stated publically her views on the universe's origin, according to media reports. But her husband Dick DeVos said while running for governor of Michigan in 2006 he would like to see students exposed to "the ideas of intelligent design" -- a theory which argues the universe is the product of intelligence rather than chance.

At Betsy DeVos' confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., noted organizations with ties to DeVos that allegedly support the intelligent design movement. Then Whitehouse asked, "If school districts around the country try to teach students junk science, will the Department of Education be with the students or with the political entities trying to force the junk science into the science programs?"

DeVos responded, "I support the teaching of great science and especially science that allows students to exercise critical thinking."

Michigan State University professor Robert Pennock told the news website Propublica that DeVos' use of the phrase "critical thinking" was a code "that signaled her willingness to open the door to intelligent design creationism."

In an email to Propublica, John West, vice president of the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute, said such a suggestion was "ludicrous." He added that "critical thinking is a pretty foundational idea supported by lots of people, not just us." Critical thinking "should apply to discussions of evolution."

The 2006 SBC resolution "on the direction of the public school system" referenced "government schools indoctrinating children with dogmatic Darwinism ... which radically influences their view of origins."

The resolution also cited public school "curricula and policies teaching that the homosexual lifestyle is acceptable."

T.C. French, chairman of the 2006 Resolutions Committee, told BP that DeVos and her family appear to have a "background" of improving "the educational program of the United States" from "the direction that the secularists have been able to carry the program."

The 2006 resolution encouraged Southern Baptist churches "to solicit individuals from their membership to engage the culture of our public school systems nationwide by ... exerting their godly influence upon these school systems."

French, pastor emeritus of Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., said DeVos, who is not Southern Baptist, seems to have potential for exercising such influence.

Leadership "can change things," French said. "I think one of the things President Trump wants to do to is change directions of some of the agencies of the federal government and make them better."

Since 1960, SBC resolutions have referenced public schools more than 40 times, with multiple exhortations for believers to exert godly influence on America's schools.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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