THE HUFFINGTON POST
It takes more than just a solid resume and stellar references to get hired at The Potter’s House, a school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The job application also requires prospective teachers to sign and accept a statement of faith.
“We believe that the world was perfect at creation, but sin intervened, severing all people’s perfect relationship with God and bringing consequences on every object and institution within the creation,” the statement reads, in part.
The Potter’s House is a private school that is “evangelical in nature” and reportedly teaches creationism alongside evolution. It’s also the type of school that Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, apparently believes can level the playing field in educational inequality. The nondenominational Potter’s House makes a special effort to serve students of all races and income levels.
DeVos has been deeply involved with The Potter’s House for years ― as a donor, volunteer and board member. She has mentioned the school by name in speeches and interviews, saying schools like The Potter’s House have given “kids the chance to succeed and thrive” and that the institution inspired her to advocate for education-related causes.
Early signs indicate that DeVos will help make it easier for kids to attend similar private, religious schools. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal sets aside $250 million for a “new private school choice program” ― something DeVos said in a statement would place “power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children.”
Critics of the education secretary say they fear her commitment to religious education will come at the expense of traditional public schools and eventually recede the separation between church and state. A closer look at The Potter’s House may not alleviate these concerns.
As far as I know going back, they presented the creation story.
Reggie Smith, father of The Potter’s House students
The school, which serves students in pre-K through 12th grade, centers its instructions and culture around Jesus Christ and God.
“Since God is the center of reality, the Bible will be taught as having significance in all areas of life,” reads a “philosophy statement agreement” that parents of students are required to sign. The school’s handbook says all students must take Bible classes, attend morning prayers and follow a strict dress code.
Science instructors teach both creationism and evolution, according to two parents of children who are currently attending or have attended the school.
“As far as I know going back, they presented the creation story, but also talked about how evolution was another theory in how people thought about the world and how they thought the world was created,” said Reggie Smith, a pastor whose three daughters previously attended the school. “It was pretty balanced to me, even though they were coming from a Christian perspective.”
Some nonacademic classes are taught by teachers from the nearby Grand Rapids Public Schools district, according to Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association. But instructors who want to work directly for the school must prove their commitment to Christianity, both by signing the statement of faith and by answering application questions such as: “Which Christian disciplines do you consider especially important for a follower of Jesus in today’s culture?”
Such emphasis on religion is not unusual for a Christian school with evangelical roots. What is notable is the strong connection that a sitting education secretary, who is tasked with shaping policy to improve the nation’s public schools, has to such an institution.
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation donated over $2 million to the school between 2001 and 2013, according to tax filings. And DeVos herself was a member of the school’s advisory board from 1994 to 2016, according to her website.
The school’s leadership team has involved a number of other conservative heavy-hitters, including J.C. Huizenga, who is listed on the school’s website as a foundation board member. Huizenga founded a for-profit charter school chain, and was included in the 2014 membership directory for the Council for National Policy ― which the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as a secretive group “where mainstream conservatives and extremists mix.” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway have also been involved with the group.
The Council for National Policy produced a document earlier this year in which it called on DeVos to restore religious education and implement Bible classes in public schools, according to The Washington Post. DeVos reportedly did not receive the document and therefore would not comment on it.
The Potter’s House, which is located in an area where many Latino families live, is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than many private schools. Tuition rates are determined by a formula based on a family’s income, making it affordable to many low-income families. Eighty percent of students in 2013 received some degree of scholarship money, according to a report the school submitted to AdvancED, a nonprofit that accredits schools.
It’s an anomaly in an area where private schools tend to attract white, upper middle-class families, said Sarah Boonstra, who has two daughters attending the school. The school’s commitment to diversity and social justice is partly what motivated her to send her children there, she said.
And despite its Christian-centric classes, The Potter’s House doesn’t pressure students or parents to participate in any specific faith-based activities outside school hours, Boonstra said. The school also doesn’t just cater to Republican families, she added, noting that Gary Johnson won a mock election among eighth-graders last year.
“I want people to know there are a variety of parents who choose to do this,” said Boonstra, a former lawyer who now nannies for a local family. “When you’re in an area like Grand Rapids, which can be pretty white especially in some of the Christian areas, it was important that my kids be exposed to a broader cross-section of society.”
The school’s superintendent, John Booy, has said in various interviews with Michigan-based news outlets that he intentionally designed the school to promote this type of diversity. Booy did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
However, Booy has previously praised DeVos’ involvement with the school, as well as her commitment to children and education.
“She’s always thinking about what is the best way to educate kids in the 21st century, and are we locked into models that have perhaps become somewhat outdated?” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.
Both Boonstra and Smith said they don’t know DeVos personally and are grateful for her involvement in the school. But they also said they strongly believe in the mission of public education.
“That is a concern, that public schools aren’t going to get enough attention in west Michigan. It may shift in one way. My hope is that would not be the case because I don’t think it’s either/or; I think it’s both/and,” Smith said. “My prayer is that Betsy will be working for both.”