By Adam Phillips 1-31-2017

Last week Christian writer and brand guru Donald Miller quipped on Twitter, “I’m supporting @BetsyDeVos for Sec. of Education. The criticism is pure theatre. Our schools have fallen to 17th in the world. Need new ideas.”

Folks had some questions and sincere pushback for Miller, including me. (His tweet has since been deleted.) This was a strange experience for me, as I hand out his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story every couple of months to parishioners looking to make fresh life decisions. I’m that guy who walks over to Powell’s Bookstore in downtown Portland to snap up another used copy. I’m essentially an evangelist for Miller’s ideas on faith, compassion, and heart-felt story.

So his support for Trump’s pick for secretary of education was really discouraging because within moments, it was revealed that Betsy DeVos was not only a friend, but a financial investor in his work. Miller later insinuated folks were demonizing DeVos (or himself?) unfairly, and that he was moving on.

I am not questioning Betsy DeVos’s Christian character or her compassion. Nor am I questioning her sincere convictions on education reform and her commitment to improvements.

But when it comes to our nation’s public education system, we want more conversation, not less — and we certainly don’t want to demean very real debate as “pure theatre.”

I have friends that have churched with DeVos for years in western Michigan. Her leadership and faithful participation speak for themselves — she is a sincere, devoted woman of God, committed to seeing the church grow and thrive. Reading former Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Don Golden’s Facebook comments on his experience with DeVos while he was on staff with Rob Bell reflect this:

I know Betsy is a woman of integrity who tries as hard as anyone to make life and faith rhyme. I saw this in many specific ways both big and small. Mostly I saw it in her sustained commitment to tutoring a little girl and investing in that child's family. That meant showing up over and over and over again with the kind of commitment that's easy to drop. But Betsy didn't.

And as a church planter and leader myself, I’m looking for women and men of faith to be these kind of lay leaders at our church. On this front, DeVos is beyond reproach.

But we’re talking about someone who is set to lead the nation’s education policy in Washington, D.C. — and critical engagement with policy is the primary function of the job. To this point, I appreciate Seattle Pacific University’s dean of Education Rick Eigenbrood’s comments on DeVos, as reported in Politico:

‘I don’t think she understands public education… From what I can tell, Betsy DeVos is a fine, upstanding Christian woman with a very strong sense of social commitment,’ Eigenbrood said. But Eigenbrood says she ‘really fumbled on a lot of questions’ in her testimony before Congress on January 17, when DeVos admitted that she had no experience with student financial aid, did not know the difference between ‘proficiency’ and ‘growth,’ two major educational philosophies, and said she may have been ‘confused’ about whether the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is a federal, rather than state, statute.

When it comes to public education and Christian witness, this is a real iron sharpening iron moment (Proverbs 27:17) — not a moment to devolve into dismissive tweets.

Many of us have sincere concern with Betsy Devos’ policy positions, and her mettle in what is an increasingly concerning Trump administration. Our public education system must seek the best for our children, and it must ensure redoubled efforts for equity in the midst of terrible gaps and performance threatening at-risk kids in cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the country.

In her congressional hearing, DeVos was unable to ensure that she would hold charter and private schools to the same standards at public schools. This makes the future of our public education system a serious concern. I am a firm believer in education choice, and I support private and charter schools. Some of our closest friends rave about the excellent education experience their children receive at such schools. You don’t have to convince me of the importance of these schools — as long as they are held to the same standards as our public schools. Most Christ-following Americans want to see all kids from all walks of life get equal access to the best education possible. But when you waver on applied standards, you make people nervous — especially those concerned with seeking equity for kids in marginalized communities.

That’s why I resonate with Nicole Baker Fulgham’s work at The Expectations Project — a group committed to mobilizing churches to be more involved in bridging the education and equity gap by standing with low-income students and under-resourced schools.

When Betsy DeVos cannot assure members of Congress that the same standards would be applied no matter what kind of school or economic situation American children might find themselves in, it’s a matter of serious concern, not only for underserved kids in struggling communities, but for kids with disabilities.

As a pastor, I know first hand the struggle of families raising children on the autism spectrum. They rely on resources and programs provided by their child’s school. More often than not, schools are unprepared to serve kids living with autism and other developmental challenges — so it becomes a bit of a treasure hunt to find a school that will actually be able to provide the best education for their beloved child.

That’s why DeVos’s dismissal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a matter of grave concern. IDEA mandates that public schools across the United States ensure that any and all students with disabilities are provided free and appropriate education. It’s not about states rights, as DeVos implied — it’s about civil rights. She said she was confusing IDEA with other legislation, but in a letter to Republican Sen. Johnny Isaakson a few days later to clear up the flub, she didn’t mention anything about “traditional public schools” — causing even further merited concern about education equity matters. 

I’m with Nish Weiseth, an author, advocate, and mother of a child on the autism spectrum, when she explains that “the philosophy of DeVos in regards to education is potentially devastating for disabled and special needs students.

It’s the job of our elected leaders in Washington to fully interrogate and debate Cabinet-level appointees before they assume their office in any presidential administration. It’s a cynical thing to dismiss such democratic efforts and a fairly dim view of our constitutional mandates for public policy as “theatre.”

Was it theatre, brother Don, when DeVos talked about guns in public schools as a way to fend off “grizzly bears,” as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) fought back tears thinking of the 20 6- and 7-year-olds murdered in a Connecticut elementary school? Protecting the safety of our children in our schools is going to take more than prayers and cute remarks about bears. It requires fresh and firm gun legislation.

I wonder if sister Betsy, out of her Christian convictions, will be able to demonstrate the mettle and resilience needed to protect our refugee, immigrant, and LGBTQ kids in our schools. Because this will require the secretary of education’s commitment, too.

People of faith should be about forming a circle of protection when it comes to kids’ safety, flourishing, and equal access to great education. In these times, we also need robust debate about what policies best reflect our values. We, and our kids, will all be better for it.

Rev. Adam Phillips is founder of Christ Church: Portland, an open, active, and inclusive community in the Rose City.

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