Betsy DeVos Ramps Up Her War on Public Schools

Edd Doerr

On May 16, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s utterly unqualified and virulently toxic education secretary, was the featured speaker at the Alfred E. Smith Foundation in New York City, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan in attendance. Her speech was a vicious attack on our public schools and on the provisions in three-fourths of our state constitutions that bar tax support for religious private schools. DeVos is a long-time despiser of the public schools she never attended and a well-known fanatic advocate of vouchers, tax credits, and other schemes for diverting public funds to such schools.

DeVos thus thumbed her nose at Article XI, Section 3 of the New York constitution, dating to 1894, a section approved then by the Catholic bishops and upheld by New York voters in the 1967 constitutional referendum by 72 percent to 28 percent. Unmentioned by DeVos were the twenty-eight state referenda from coast to coast between 1966 and 2014 in which millions of American voters upheld state bans on tax aid to private schools by an average margin of two to one, including three referenda in DeVos’s own Michigan (1970, 1978, and 2000). In her May 16 speech, she made it clear that she thinks that those who oppose tax aid to religious private schools are “bigots,” presumably including the large number of Catholics who oppose tax aid to church schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

DeVos was also thumbing her nose at the wisdom of Madison’s pioneering 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments and Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, in which he wrote that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” And at Catholic president John F. Kennedy, who declared in 1960 that “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute … where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference.”

In short, DeVos, Trump, Pence, and various conservative lawmakers are way out of sync with the finest American values on religious liberty and public education.

While in New York, DeVos declined to visit a single public school but did make time to visit two Orthodox yeshivas, apparently indifferent to or ignorant of the fact that many Orthodox yeshivas are being severely criticized for violating state law in New York regarding school curricula.

The sooner this Wicked Witch of the West (well, western Michigan) is banished from Washington, the better off our country will be.

Francis’s ‘Apostolic Exhortation’

In April, Pope Francis emitted an “apostolic exhortation” titled Gaudate et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), a document one notch below an encyclical in papal authority. This manifestation of ostentatious grandiosity is apparently intended to revitalize Catholic dedication to traditional church teaching in the face of declining interest, and thus it is rather boring. But two items in it merit mention: its reaffirmation of the Vatican’s vigorous condemnation of abortion and its hyped-up attack on “Pelagianism,” an essential element of humanism.

In reiterating the Vatican’s fierce opposition to the right of women to terminate problem pregnancies, Francis is contributing to the overpopulation that has been fueling climate change, ignoring French president Emmanuel Macron’s recent comment to Congress that “We have no Planet B” to fall back on. He is ignoring what Paul Ehrlich wrote fifty years ago in The Population Bomb and reiterated this year—that our planet’s carrying capacity is about two billion, and we are now at 7.5 billion and headed toward ten billion by 2050. He is ignoring what Julian Huxley wrote in 1961 in The Humanist Frame about overpopulation. He is ignoring what the U.S. government’s 1975 NSSM 200 report said on the subject. (See my previous column in Free Inquiry.) He is ignoring what most Catholics think about abortion.

Pelagianism? That was the view expressed by the Celtic theologian Pelagius (360–416) that “original sin” does not exist, even though it has been standard Catholic (and later Lutheran, Calvinist, and mainstream Protestant) doctrine since the second century. “Original sin,” supposedly inherited by everyone after the “disobedience” of Adam and Eve, has been used to con people into accepting church doctrine. Notice that I said that the “original sin” idea dates to the second century. There is no record that Jesus, real or mythical, ever proclaimed the “original sin” idea. So Pelagianism is really at the heart of humanism, Unitarian Universalism, and similar worldviews. For further information on this matter, see Joseph Fletcher’s article on demythologization in The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.

Francis has taken some moderate to liberal positions on some issues and is regarded as “heretical” by some conservative Catholics, but he is still largely stuck behind what our troubled times demand.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


On May 16, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s utterly unqualified and virulently toxic education secretary, was the featured speaker at the Alfred E. Smith Foundation in New York City, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan in attendance. Her speech was a vicious attack on our public schools and on the provisions in three-fourths of our state constitutions that bar …

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