capitol dome section with flagWritten by Don Byrd

Much of the controversy surrounding Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has centered on her advocacy for school choice initiatives, including school voucher programs. The Baptist Joint Committee has long opposed school vouchers because they invariably send taxpayer money to fund religious education. As the BJC’s Holly Hollman explained in a 2011 column on school vouchers:

“Religious teachings should be funded by voluntary contributions, not through compulsory taxation. Voucher programs that provide tuition to religious schools violate the freedom of conscience of taxpayers who have the right to insist that the government remain neutral in matters of religion.”

[For more on school vouchers, see “School Vouchers Threaten Religious Autonomy” by the BJC’s Jennifer Hawks.]

In her brief Senate confirmation hearing this evening, DeVos was asked a handful of questions regarding school vouchers. None focused on the specific issue of taxpayer-funded religious education, or the right of states to exclude religious schools from voucher programs out of concern for state law prohibiting aid to religion. She did assert multiple times that she viewed decisions regarding the implementation of school choice initiatives to be the role of state and local government, not the federal government. She stated further that she has no intention to mandate or direct any state to mandate voucher programs.

There were a couple of other hearing moments with some church-state interest. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) asked DeVos about the use of faith-based and other private partnerships to expand pre-kindergarten programs. You can watch that exchange below:

Later, she was asked by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) about her role in supporting organizations that had advocated for religious ideas to be promoted in the public school science curriculum. You can watch that exchange below.

A couple of points: first, on the issue of faith-based partnerships in pre-k, a central church-state question, which was left un-addressed here, is the extent to which such public funds are available to religious institutions for proselytizing or for hiring teachers on the basis of religion. Federal funds should not be used to discriminate on the basis of religion, or to promote religion, particularly among young children.

Second, I was glad to hear DeVos decline to embrace “intelligent design” in the public school science curriculum when given the chance. At the same time, I was uncomfortable at her emphasis on teaching science in a way “that allows students to exercise critical thinking.” It sounds nice, but echoes pretty closely the rhetoric of those who promote creationism in science education. Under the guise of teaching students to “think critically,” they advocate the allowance of “alternate theories” to evolution. She may not have meant that in her answer – there was not any followup on that point – and I should give her the benefit of the doubt on that point. But despite this being the role of state and local government, the new administration’s views on religion and the science curriculum may be worth watching going forward.

You can see the entire DeVos confirmation hearing here.