Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child
By Betsy DeVos
(Center Street, 320 pages, $29)
Horace Mann (1796–1859) famously commented, “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.” The Trump administration’s controversial secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, pays unfavorable homage to the education reformer with her new book, Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child.
DeVos, who spent 30 years advocating for school choice through her charitable work, and the American Federation for Children, an organization she founded with her husband, Dick DeVos, proved to be arguably the most polarizing of Trump’s cabinet picks. Although DeVos’ selection was celebrated by the right, it sparked a firestorm of outrage on the left. DeVos was repeatedly lambasted as an unqualified candidate because she had no teaching experience, even though only four of the other 12 previous secretaries of education had K-12 classroom experience. The daughter of the president of Prince Manufacturing and the daughter-in-law of the founder of Amway, DeVos was painted as a rich philanthropist who wanted to steal money from public schools to give to private and parochial schools. DeVos was narrowly confirmed, with then-Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote against a 50–50 deadlock.
In Hostages No More, DeVos argues that Horace Mann’s industrial vision of education, which has students sitting in a row in a classroom where they are forced to master a curriculum all at the same pace, is out of step with the way students learn. DeVos asserts that every student has an intrinsic rhythm for learning and needs the latitude to follow their beat. Students should not be pushed forward before they have mastered fundamental concepts, nor should they be held back to be at parity with others. Moreover, children should not be victims of their geography such that they are forced to attend an underperforming neighborhood public school. Parents should have the option, via vouchers, educational scholarships, and educational savings accounts, to send their children to the school that best meets their needs, whether it be a traditional public, public charter, private, parochial, cyber, or home school.
The book chronicles DeVos’ early life, her pre–White House career, and her time at the helm of the Department of Education, which she has spoken publicly about abolishing, most recently at a July Moms for Liberty event. DeVos asserts that President Jimmy Carter initially founded the Department of Education in 1979 as part of a quid-pro-quo deal with the federal teachers unions and argues that the department has historically been more focused on the needs of the unions and the school administrators than on those of the students, teachers, and parents. DeVos assumed leadership of the department with plans to implement a more flexible educational model with the possibility of better outcomes for all students.
DeVos’ book covers her White House years, from her contentious confirmation hearing to her resignation in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, after which she asserted that the president’s “rhetoric” had an “impact on the situation.” She writes extensively about COVID-19 and the close-to-two-year period when in-person learning was replaced by an uneven delivery of home-based remote learning, creating significant gaps in student achievement and amplifying feelings of isolation and depression. COVID, she argued, further emphasized the need for school choice for all.
DeVos dedicates a lot of text to describe her accomplishments in implementing her “educational freedom agenda,” an agenda that included educational-freedom scholarships that enabled federal and state money to follow the child. She also championed greater investment in trade and apprenticeships, arguing that not every student wants a university education and that we should also build a network of individuals who can earn a good living by perfecting a skilled trade. She additionally enhanced the deployment of second-chance educational programs for individuals who had been incarcerated or placed in juvenile detention facilities.
DeVos uses an extensive amount of quantitative and qualitative data to advance her various arguments. She illustrates that the exponential growth in federal and state-specific education spending over the last few decades has collectively done little to improve student proficiency. According to the 2018 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of the top-rated countries, the United States ranks fourth in education spending but 37th in overall student proficiency. We’re 38th in math, 13th in reading, and 19th in science. DeVos provides many examples of innovative schools and educational programs that are delivering positive outcomes for students with smaller financial investments.
As for the Trump administration, DeVos chooses her words carefully. While she praises President Trump for his willingness to champion programs like expanded trade learning and second-chance programs, she blames the “dysfunctional White House” for the gridlocks in the deployment of her agenda. She claims that the staff held up the confirmation of her 12-member staff, which limited her ability to be impactful at the start of her tenure. She also cites an example in which paragraphs about school choice disappeared from Trump’s 2018 State of the Union Address. She claims that her signature educational-freedom scholarships, which would enable all students to have the funding to attend the school of their choice, lost traction because the “dysfunctional White House” was too focused on contesting the 2020 election results and consequently squandered the opportunity for a bipartisan conversation.
DeVos does an excellent job of not only making the case for educational freedom but also providing enough background and context for those who are not familiar with the history of school choice. The book’s biggest challenge is that it will likely only be read by people who are already predisposed to embrace the tenets of school choice or to support DeVos. Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, DeVos never fully succeeded in winning over the other side.
Hostages No More is an engrossing book that makes the case that our students have a better chance of succeeding academically and professionally if we offer them more flexible education and training options across the K-12 and higher education spectrum, with valuable insights from Betsy DeVos, one of its biggest, albeit one of its most polarizing, champions.