When someone like Betsy DeVos, who has been active for years in Michigan state politics emerges on the national stage, it is worth paying careful attention to what Michigan insiders have to say. DeVos is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education; her record in Michigan will prepare us for what she will bring to the U.S. Department of Education. Michigan’s investigative EclectaBlog just published Mitchell Robinson’s history of two decades’ of advocacy for school privatization by Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, the Grand Rapids, Amway heir.
While school vouchers had been defeated at Michigan’s polls in 1972 and 1978, in 2000 Dick and Betsy DeVos backed an amendment to change the following constitutional language: “No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized… to add or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school.” Robinson explains that after Michigan voters rejected the DeVos-backed measure in 2000 by a 69 percent margin, the DeVoses settled on a stealth lobbying campaign to accomplish their long goal of marketplace school choice.
In 2001, they founded the Great Lakes Education Project “to fight against public schools, teacher unions, and teachers.” They also invested to gain control of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Philanthropy through their private family foundation is driven by the organization’s mission statement: “Our faith motivates our giving; it is integral to who we are and what we do.” The DeVos Family Foundation has made grants to the Foundation for Traditional Values which sponsors the Student Statesmanship Institute that, “Equips teenagers to distinguish between secular and Biblical approaches to life and motivates them to shine for Christ in their generation without compromising their values.” Robinson also ties Dick and Betsy DeVos to the Michigan Family Forum, the state branch of Focus on the Family. In 2010, Betsy DeVos formed the American Federation for Children, which grew out of an older organization, Advocates for School Choice, to work for school privatization across the country.
Finally there was last summer’s enormous lobbying campaign in Michigan’s House of Representatives to kill the Detroit Education Commission, which was to have been part of the Detroit Public Schools rescue plan: “It became clear that Betsy and Dick DeVos were the major players in the negotiations to replace the Senate plan with a House version that carved out special protections for school choice and charter schools, even going so far as to ‘freeze out’ a leading Republican senator and Detroit’s mayor from the deliberations… Only a ‘reformer’ obsessed with instituting an unconstitutional school choice agenda could turn a blind eye to the plight of thousands of her state’s most vulnerable children and teachers, and call for dissolving a once great city school system in favor of a dangerously disorganized grab bag of privately-mismanaged charter, private, and religious schools, closing and opening at the whim of their investors, wreaking havoc on the lives of the city’s inhabitants.” (At the end of his article, Mr. Robinson prints the hotlink citations to document his analysis.)
This week Stephen Henderson, the editorial page director of the Detroit Free Press, published Betsy DeVos and the Twilight of Public Education, his second commentary on Betsy DeVos since her nomination by Trump as his Education Secretary. Henderson also condemns last summer’s $1.45 million purchase by the DeVoses of the Michigan House to eliminate the Detroit Education Commission from the Detroit Schools rescue plan: “This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome. And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.”
Who is Betsy DeVos, in Henderson’s view? “DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools. She is, in essence, a lobbyist—someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them. For 20 years, the lobby her family bankrolls has propped up the billion-dollar charter school industry and insulated it from commonsense oversight, even as charter schools repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to parents and children.”
Henderson attributes the development of Michigan’s unregulated, for-profit sector to the power of DeVos money: “Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters… In Michigan, just about anyone can open a charter school if they can raise the money. That’s not so in most other states, where proven track records are required… And in Michigan, you can operate a charter for profit, so even schools that fail academically are worth keeping open because they can make money. Michigan leads the nation in the number of schools operated for profit, while other states have moved to curb the expansion of for-profit charters, or banned them outright… The most accurate assessment is that charter schools have simply created a second, privately managed failing system…”
So how has Betsy DeVos responded to the evidence of the academic failure of many of Detroit’s charters? “DeVos and her family have not been daunted by these outcomes. It’s as if the reams of data showing just incremental progress or abysmal failure don’t matter. Their belief in charter schools is unshakeable, their resistance to systematic reforms that would improve both public and charter schools unyielding.”