I grew up in Montana, where in Montana history class we learned that at one time Anaconda Copper owned the state legislature. While the patrons have changed over the decades, the political process hasn’t been cleaned up. Amazingly the extraction industry has been replaced by the education sector these days in a number of states. On Tuesday this blog covered the investments being made in Ohio to block the regulation of the notorious online charter schools. Today the subject is Michigan and the massive payoffs this summer by Dick and Betsy DeVos, the Grand Rapids couple who made their fortune in Amway. Dick and Betsy DeVos have been investing heavily this summer to ensure that Detroit’s for-profit charter operators won’t be regulated.
Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, explains: “There’s nothing more difficult than proving quid pro quos in politics, the instances in which favor is returned for specific monetary support. But look at the amounts involved, and consider the DeVos’ near sole interest in the issue of school choice. It’s a fool’s errand to imagine a world in which the family’s deep pockets haven’t skewed the school debate to the favor of their highly financed lobby.” The Great Lakes Education Project is the Michigan pro-charter school lobby underwritten by the DeVos family, who also launched All Children Matter in the spring of 2003 to promote private school vouchers. Dick and Betsy DeVos later founded the American Federation for Children, which has, according to ThinkProgress, worked with its closely related PAC to serve “as a launching pad for school choice legislation across the country.”
You’ll remember that earlier this summer the state legislature in Michigan passed a bill to prevent the bankruptcy of the Detroit Public Schools, but at the last minute the legislature removed the Detroit Education Commission, an agency that had been designed to regulate an out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector and to oversee, for example, the siting of schools to ensure that the needs of children instead of the marketing plans of charter chains determine where schools are opened and closed. Even Governor Rick Snyder had approved the creation of the Detroit Education Commission, but the Michigan House removed it suddenly in a late night session. (This blog has covered the Detroit Public Schools and charter school expansion in Detroit here.)
Henderson explains what happened: “Bought and paid for. Back in June, that’s how I described the Detroit school legislation that passed in Lansing—a filthy, moneyed kiss to the charter school industry at the expense of the kids who’ve been victimized by those schools’ unaccountable inconsistency… The DeVos family, owners of the largest charter lobbying organization, has showered Michigan Republican candidates and organizations with impressive and near-unprecedented amounts of money this campaign cycle: $1.45 million in June and July alone—over a seven-week period, an average of $25,000 a day.”
Here are the details according to Henderson: “Back in March, the Senate voted to place charter schools under the same authority as public schools in the city for quality control and attention to population need and balance…. But when the bills moved to the state House, lawmakers gutted that provision, returning a bill to the Senate that preserved the free-for-all charter environment that has locked Detroit in an educational morass for two decades. After less than a week of debate, the Senate caved.”
Why did the legislature capitulate to the wishes of Dick and Betsy DeVos? “Five days later, several members of the DeVos family made the maximum allowable contributions to the Michigan Republican Party, a total of roughly $180,000. The next day, DeVos family members made another $475,000 in contributions to the party. It was the beginning of a spending spree that would swell to $1.45 million in contributions to the party and to individual candidates by the end of July….”
Henderson defines what ought to be the goal of education in contrast to what has become the mission of charter school supporters in Michigan: “Education should always be about children. But in Michigan, children’s education has been squandered in the name of a reform ‘experiment,’ driven by ideologies that put faith in markets alone, as the best arbiters of quality, and so heavily financed by donors like the DeVos clan that nearly no other voices get heard in the educational conversation.”
While Michigan is unique in the power of the Grand Rapids DeVos family, the welfare of children in many states is threatened by the power of charter school money. Henderson concludes: “The polite term for this kind of reflexive giving is transactional politics; it is the way things work not just in Lansing but in Washington, and in political circles in all 50 states.”