When billionaire Betsy DeVos was first floated as a potential pick for U.S. Secretary of Education in December 2016, it was quickly revealed that she once praised using taxpayer money to fund private and religious schools as a way to “advance God’s Kingdom.” Now that she’s President Donald Trump’s official nominee for the position, much has been made of her Christian faith and affinity for religious education—including her own schooling at Calvin College, a small Christian school in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But if DeVos is hoping to garner support from her alma mater, she may be disappointed: More than 2,700 Calvin alumni have signed a petition opposing her nomination, saying she is “not qualified for the position” because she lacks a “strong commitment to public education.”
Calvin, a college of about 4,000 students, is affiliated with the conservative wing of the Calvinist—or “Reformed”—Christian tradition. Yet the alumni petition has a relatively progressive bent: It lists four core reasons why DeVos is a poor candidate for the position, such as her preference for advocacy over actual experience in education, or her apparent unfamiliarity with federal polices regarding publicly funded schools.
“We believe that any individual who is nominated to be Secretary of Education should have a strong commitment to public education, which Mrs. DeVos does not.”
Signers also criticized her apparent preference for Christian education.
“Many of us entered Calvin College directly from Christian high schools and spent our entire elementary and secondary school years in these institutions, as did Mrs. DeVos,” he petition reads. “While we appreciate the opportunity to thrive and learn that is provided by these educational systems, we recognize that the vast majority of K–12 students are educated in the public school system. Because of this, we believe that any individual who is nominated to be Secretary of Education should have a strong commitment to public education, which Mrs. DeVos does not.”
Sara Moslener, herself an educator and the author of the petition, told ThinkProgess that her opposition to DeVos’s nomination was rooted in her experience as a public school instructor.
“I am an educator at a public university, so this felt authentic — it wasn’t just resisting to resist. It was coming from me,” said Moslener, who works as a religion professor at Central Michigan University.
Moslener also expressed reservations with DeVos’s apparent lack of knowledge regarding student loans. She pointed to DeVos’s confirmation hearing, when she admitted to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that neither she nor her children have ever relied on federal financial assistance to pay for schooling.
“Unless you have been through that experience, you just don’t know,” Moslener said. “For me, this is about addressing social inequality.”
“I think her views are pretty much on the margins of the views of most Calvin College graduates.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, another signer of the petition who works as a philosophical theology professor at Yale, articulated similar concerns.
“My worry is that she appears to be indifferent to the welfare to the public school system, whereas I think the public school system is a jewel of American democracy,” he said. “I think her views are pretty much on the margins of most Calvin College graduates.”
To be sure, some Calvin alumni have voiced support for DeVos. But others affiliated with Christian conservatism have also railed against her nomination. As Laura Turner notes in Politico, evangelical Christian leaders, seminary professors, and publications have all spoken out against the billionaire.
And despite the flurry of coverage regarding DeVos’s faith, most of her her conservative detractors did not decry her religious beliefs. Instead, they simply argue she isn’t right for the job, saying conservative Christians do not uniformly embrace regressive education policies.
“Christian liberal arts colleges are not monolithic,” Moslener said. “There is a lot of diversity there.”
Indeed, Calvin, despite its conservative theological leanings, has a history of progressive activism. When George W. Bush was invited to speak at the school’s commencement service in 2005, more than 800 students, faculty, and alumni published a letter in The Grand Rapids Press protesting his appearance. Roughly 100 of the school’s 300 faculty also signed a letter opposing the visit, saying Bush’s policies “favor the wealthy of our society and burden the poor.”