DeVos Family Contributes Lavishly to Legislators Who Defeated Detroit Charter School Oversight

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 Amazingly the extraction industry has been replaced by the education sector these days in a number of states.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.”

NY Times Publishes Major Expose of Detroit’s Charter School Catastrophe

Kate Zernike’s extraordinary expose in yesterday’s NY Times about K-12 education in Detroit, Michigan is a must-read.  The headline describes the reality today in Detroit: For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This post will summarize Zernike’s critique, but you’ll need to read her piece to learn how Detroit’s school-choice realities are being felt by the city’s poorest parents—who must spend hours delivering their children to schools spread across the 140 square mile school district where public transportation is inadequate and many charters do not provide any busing.  You’ll also learn how unregulated, awful schools are truncating the futures of the children Zernike profiles.

Zernike narrates the history of Detroit’s school marketplace.  In 1993, John Engler, Michigan’s “free-market-inclined governor,” “embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run….” “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools.  It got competition, and chaos. Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States. While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

Lack of regulation was a cornerstone of school choice in Detroit from the very beginning. School districts, community colleges and public universities can authorize and supposedly oversee charter schools, and they get an incentive of 3 percent of the state dollars paid to each charter school they sponsor.  “And only they—not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education—could shut down failing schools.”  Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit management companies: “The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors. Sometimes they were one and the same, as with J.C. Huizenga, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who founded Michigan’s largest charter school operator, the for-profit National Heritage Academies.  Two of the biggest players in Michigan politics, Betsy and Dick DeVos—she the former head of the state Republican Party, he the heir to the Amway fortune and a 2006 candidate for governor—established the Great Lakes Educational Project, which became the state’s most pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative…  Even as Michigan and Detroit continued to hemorrhage residents, the number of schools grew.  The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools.” Huizenga even managed to get a law passed by the state legislature that permits for-profit charter companies not to pay taxes on any properties they lease to schools.

It is a free-for-all that has failed the children but has at the same time been profitable for the charter management companies and their sponsors: “With about $1.1 billion in state tax dollars going to charter schools, those that grant  the charters get about $33 million. Those institutions are often far from the schools; one, Bay Mills Community College, is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nearly 350 miles away—as far from Detroit as Portland, ME., is from New York City.”

Zernike profiles families whose children have changed schools multiple times after parents, drawn by incentives and promises of quality education, discover they have been sold a myth: “With all the new schools, Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than it needs.  The competition to get students to school on count day—the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school—can resemble a political campaign.  Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals.  They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.”

Finally this year, as the legislature set out to develop a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from years’ of deficit spending by a succession of state-appointed emergency managers, it seemed as though there would be a way incorporate some charter oversight as part of the plan, but it didn’t work out.  Mayor Mike Duggan, “proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate… Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, the mayor got a Republican senator from Western Michigan to sponsor legislation, including the commission.  Governor Snyder, distracted and shamed by the scandal over the lead poisoning in the water supply of the mostly black and state-controlled city of Flint, was in no position to defend the state control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal… But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters…. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission.”

Please read For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This blog has covered the problems in the Detroit Public Schools here.

In Michigan Politics Children Are Mere Afterthought

In Detroit last week the Michigan House of Representatives passed a plan that, if it can be reconciled with another plan enacted earlier by the Michigan Senate, will ensure that all the teachers will be paid for their work during the current school year.  But the House scheme comes at enormous cost to the future of the school district.  And Speaker of the Michigan House, Kevin Cotter, made a point—rhetorically and legislatively—of attacking Detroit’s school teachers as though they are somehow at fault here.

The Michigan Senate had already passed a much earlier proposal from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to create a long-term arrangement for addressing the financial crisis (that, ironically, has rapidly grown in Detroit during the tenure since 2009 of a series of state-appointed fiscal managers). Last week, after leading the Michigan House of Representatives to delay action on Snyder’s and the Senate’s plan, House Speaker Cotter blamed Detroit’s school teachers because, banned by law from striking, they have organized sickouts to protest filthy conditions, disrepair of buildings, and the current Emergency Manager’s announcement last week that teachers would likely not receive all of their pay for the current school year.

Here is how House Speaker Cotter described the problem the House was expected to address: “The Detroit Federation of Teachers is once again putting the wants of adults ahead of the needs of children, specifically the 40,000 Detroit schoolchildren who were left out in the rain this morning.  At an absolutely critical time for a city on the path to recovery, Detroit’s next generation has now lost more than 1,000,000 instruction hours they will never recover to cheap political stunts.  These egotistical teachers have lashed out at the children who rely on them and accomplished nothing but disrupting their students’ education.  Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves.”

It is very clear that Cotter is trying to deflect criticism from his own failed leadership and the failure to act by his legislative colleagues.  He also neglects to mention powerful political contributors who have been pushing anti-public school policy in the Michigan legislature for years now.  Among the most powerful of those political supporters is the Great Lakes Education Project, described by Chad Livengood and Jonathan Oosting of the Detroit News Lansing Bureau as, “a pro-charter group backed by the powerful DeVos family of west Michigan.”  The Senate, in a plan passed earlier, had included a Detroit Education Commission intended to stop runaway charter expansion and ensure some oversight, but the House plan passed after an all-night negotiating session late last week, leaves out the Detroit Education Commission.  Livengood and Oosting quote Gary Naeyaert, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Education Project, who lobbied against the creation of a Detroit Education Commission because, he says, it would favor traditional public schools over charters: “The proposal requires the DEC to serve the interest of the traditional district above charters….” What a radical notion: that the state charged in its constitution with providing a system of public education would favor public education.

Media Matters provides some background about the political investments of Michigan’s DeVos family: “The private foundation of Amway heir Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, members of the ‘ultra-rich, ultra-conservative,’ Koch-allied DeVos family, focuses its philanthropy on right-wing causes under the umbrellas of ‘education,’ ‘community,’ ‘arts,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘leadership.’ Betsy DeVos is also the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers-union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board. DeVos also sits on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups; recent tax filings show donations to the Alliance for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Institute for Justice.”

Besides the omission of a commission to regulate the explosive growth in Detroit of for-profit charter schools, the plan passed by the Michigan House slashes the amount of money that Republican leaders in the Senate and Governor Rick Snyder himself agree is necessary to underwrite a plan that will make the Detroit Public Schools viable.  The Snyder-Senate plan was for the state to invest $715 million over 10 years to pay off debts and give the District a new start; the House reduces that to $500 million. The House Plan also includes a lot of the kind of school turnaround strategies that have proven ineffective under federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  A clear focus also seems to be retribution against the Detroit Federation of Teachers.  Early press coverage said that all administrators and teachers would have to reapply for their jobs, though more recent articles (here and here)  explain that only administrators and principals would have to reapply.  The plan would nullify current labor contracts.  Teachers and administrators would be paid by performance.  Unlike other school districts across Michigan, the Detroit district would be permitted to hire non-certified teachers.  Teachers unions would be prohibited from negotiating the school calendar and work schedules.

After intense negotiations last week, Detroit’s teachers went back to work when they were assured in a letter from Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes that all teachers would be paid for their work during this school year. However, it was later reported that, “The assurance that Detroit teachers will receive paychecks over the summer is based on Steven Rhodes’ confidence that lawmakers will pass reform legislation and not because of an influx of new money…. Rhodes wrote a letter Tuesday that said all teachers are ‘legally entitled to be paid in full’ for their work, and assures that DPS ‘will honor that legal obligation.’  Ivy Bailey, the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said she views the letter as a legally binding document the union can take to court to force teachers to be paid if, in fact, the legislation doesn’t pass.”

What is very clear is that the financial catastrophe in the Detroit Public Schools is a long way from being resolved.  It is also clear that the mess is not the fault of the school teachers who continue, despite untenable conditions in their schools, to serve the community’s children.  It is also clear that anti-government, anti-public school forces led by Dick and Betsy DeVos are involved in trying to drive legislators to promote charters and undermine public schools.  And it is clear that for too many politicians in Michigan’s House of Representatives, the 40,000 students enrolled in Detroit’s public schools are merely an afterthought.

ALEC Relentlessly Cashes in on Kids and their Public Schools

The Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia school districts are out of money due to political fights in their statehouses. Privatization through charters and vouchers continues to grow.  States adhere to the supply-side theory that prescribes radical tax cutting as the only way to attract jobs and grow the economy.  States rank and rate school districts and create policies that explain low achievement in the very poorest districts by castigating the schools and blaming the teachers.  I hope those of us who know better will stay informed, get organized, and continue to lift our voices, because the forces on the other side have constructed and funded an institutional framework to ensure that their policies get enacted by the legislatures across the states.  And as more and more states have school vouchers, for example, that give tax dollars to families to fund private and parochial schools, vouchers become normalized in the public’s mind and the idea that something is wrong with public education becomes normalized as well.  It is unsettling that none of this is being probed in the ongoing political campaigns for President.

This coherent, calculated effort to undermine government and promote privatization—being rolled out through “model” laws that can be adopted by any state legislature—is underwritten by corporations along with some of our nation’s wealthiest political investors, and it pairs state legislators with corporations that stand to gain from legislation their lobbyists help design.  It is called ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Here is how New York’s Common Cause described ALEC in a report last year: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists.  ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line.  These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country….”  Some people have described ALEC as a dating service that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators. Too often the corporate lobbyists are the primary authors of ALEC’s model bills.

Is your state legislature considering passing Right to Work legislation to destroy the right of workers to unionize?  One of ALEC’s model bills is the “Right to Work Act.”  Here are titles of just some of ALEC’s other model bills: “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” (tuition tax credits are a kind of school voucher); “Public Charter School Operations and Autonomy Model Legislation”; “The Virtual Pubic Schools Act”; “The Charter Schools Act”; “The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act” (another voucher plan);  “Public Charter School Funding and Facilities Model Legislation”; “Education Savings Account Act”; “The Next Generation Charter Schools Act”; “Alternative Certification Act”; and the “Parent Trigger Act.”

The Center for Media and Democracy and its PR Watch and its ALEC Exposed project have set out to demonstrate how ALEC operates across the states.  Here is how PR Watch’s Brendan Fischer describes ALEC’s activity during 2015: “Despite widespread public opposition to the corporate-driven education privatization agenda, at least 172 measures reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bills were introduced in 42 states in 2015… ALEC’s education task force has pushed legislation for decades to privatize public schools, weaken teacher’s unions and lower teaching standards.  ALEC’s agenda would transform public education from a public and accountable institution that serves the public into one that serves private, for-profit interests.  ALEC model bills divert taxpayer money from public to private schools through a variety of ‘voucher’ and ‘tuition tax credit’ programs.  They promote unaccountable charter schools and shift power away from democratically elected local school boards.”

ALEC’s model bills use a number of strategies to push an idea like vouchers forward.  Many of them seem targeted to very small groups of students, and they are usually not called “vouchers.” ALEC’s bills don’t always get passed, but legislative members of ALEC are relentless about keeping the legislative conversation focused on ALEC’s priorities. Here is how Fischer describes various voucher bills introduced across state legislatures in 2015: “ALEC has cooked up a variety of means of gaining ground on school privatization…. A handful of ALEC bills claim to offer ‘scholarships’ for sympathetic populations—like students with disabilities or foster kids—but are actually targeted voucher programs….  One ALEC bill, the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, carves out vouchers for students with special needs, regardless of family income.  Nine states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island—considered similar legislation in 2015…. Another ALEC bill, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, would create a voucher program specifically for children in foster care, and was introduced in Missouri.  ‘Opportunity Scholarships,’ introduced in four states—Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico—earmark vouchers for students in schools deemed ‘failing.'”

Once smaller bills are passed, there are relentless efforts to expand them.  The original Milwaukee voucher program, passed in the 1990s, was promoted to support access to private and parochial schools for Milwaukee’s poorest children.  Now under Governor Scott Walker, vouchers have been expanded statewide and the income requirement allows families with income above the statewide median to qualify.

Here is how Fischer describes the Center for Media and Democracy’s methodology in preparing its recent report: “CMD reviewed thousands of bills introduced in state legislatures in 2015 to assess whether they contained language consistent with ALEC bills.  In determining that there were at least 172 ALEC models within state bills—that is, bills containing key provisions consistent with ALEC’s legislative agenda—CMD examined both stand-alone and omnibus measures.”  At the end of his report, Fischer lists the bills state-by-state and identifies those that passed.

According to Fischer’s report on ALEC’s 2015 activity, it isn’t only corporations that fund ALEC by paying corporate dues for their lobbyists: “One of ALEC’s biggest funders is Koch Industries…. The Kochs have had a seat at the table—where the private sector votes as equals with legislators—on ALEC’s education task force via their ‘grassroots’ group Americans for Prosperity and their Freedom Partners group…. The Kochs also have a voice on ALEC’s Education Task Force through multiple state-based think tanks of the State Policy Network, ALEC’s sister organization, which is funded by many of the same corporations and foundations and donor entities.”  The State Policy Network includes such far-right state think tanks as the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, the Mackinac Center in Michigan, and the John Locke Institute in North Carolina.  Fischer describes additional ALEC allies including Dick and Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and its affiliate the Alliance for School Choice and the relentless Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee that “has spent more than $31 million promoting ‘school choice’ nationwide between 2001 and 2012.”

One huge irony is that the Internal Revenue Service considers ALEC a tax-exempt, educational nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization.  In 2012, Common Cause filed an IRS complaint to challenge ALEC’s status.  As the NY Times reported in Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist, ALEC defended itself by arguing, “that it provides a forum for lawmakers to network and to hear from constituencies that share an interest in promoting free-market, limited-government policies.  Lobbying laws differ by state, and ALEC maintains that if any of its members’ interactions with one another happen to qualify as lobbying in a particular state, that does not mean ALEC, as an organization, lobbies.”  The NY Times report continues: “ALEC, which is registered as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, traces its roots to 1973, when the conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich and several other Republicans sought to create a state-level clearinghouse for conservative ideas.  Although its board is made up of legislators, who pay $50 a year to belong, ALEC is primarily financed by more than 200 private-sector members whose annual dues of $7,000 to $25,000 accounted for most of its $7 million budget in 2010.”