To understand Betsy DeVos’ vision for education, you have to know where she comes from…
I first laid eyes upon Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, at Campbell Brown’s forum for GOP presidential contenders. It was the summer of 2015, back when Trump was little more than a punchline, and Jeb Bush, despite drooping in the August heat that day, still seemed like the real contender. Because the event wasn’t an official debate, Bush, Walker, Vindal, Fiorina et al couldn’t appear on stage together—which meant that Brown asked the same questions of each, and got similar pablum-esque non-answers, in an endless *conversational* format. And then suddenly there was Betsy DeVos, a Brown chum, holding forth about an education *moonshot.* It wasn’t what she said that interested me so much as what she represented. Could the education reform coalition’s major selling point, its bipartisan-ness, really stretch to incorporate the extreme right-wing views of DeVos? Mightn’t it be better for her to remain in the favored domain of the DeVos family, the shadows, or at least in Michigan?
What went down in Detroit
The private consternation felt by so many reform advocates over the DeVos pick is not due to her penchant for dropping *government* in front of *public school,* but rather the outsized role she has played in shaping Detroit as an, um, education laboratory in which an out-of-control lab fire now burns. First, though, a bit of historical context. We are so used to thinking of Detroit as America’s urban hell hole that it can be hard to comprehend the optimism that took hold there two years ago as the city was coming out of bankruptcy. Finally it seemed as though the Motor City might be on the cusp of a real revival. And not the kind of comeback driven by hipsters opening cupcake shops or the rebranded subsistence farming known as *urban gardening,* but a real deal renaissance where middle-class residents return to Detroit.
It was out of this spirit of hopefulness that the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren emerged back in 2014. And it was a for realz coalition. AFT was there, but so was the reform-minded Excellent Schools Detroit and the city’s pro-charter mayor, along with members of the corporate and civic elite. People who’d been, if not at war, at deep odds, had finally gotten together around a single, shared point of agreement: if Detroit doesn’t have some way to oversee its schools—both what remains of the district schools and the fast-growing, completely unregulated charter sector—the city can forget about the future. Bankrolled by a local philanthropy, the Skillman Foundation, the coalition had the wind at its back and the political wherewithal necessary to get a bill through the state senate, even gaining the support of Governor Rick Snyder, aka @OneToughNerd.
But the feel-good story screeched to a halt last summer thanks to a wall of GOP opposition. Except that *wall* and *opposition* make it sound as though there were a whole bunch of people involved in the kneecapping that went down. There was a single family: Betsy and Dick DeVos. The bill that ultimately passed, with the DeVos’ blessing and with the aid of the lawmakers they bankroll, did virtually nothing to regulate Detroit’s *wild west* charter school sector, and will likely hasten the demise of the Detroit Public Schools. While Michigan’s burgeoning charter lobby was well represented in the final negotiations, elected representatives from Detroit were missing; in a clear violation of House rules, they weren’t even allowed to speak on the bill. And in a final twist of the shiv, the legislation that emerged lets uncertified teachers teach in Detroit, something not allowed anywhere else in Michigan. Oh, and don’t forget the new punishments for teachers who engage in *sick outs* to call attention to the appalling conditions in the city’s schools.
By any means necessary
There is a queasy, racialized undertone to much of the education reform debate, with its constant implication that students of color fare best in schools over which their communities have little say. In Michigan, though, that argument has been taken by reform advocates, Betsy DeVos chief among them, to its extreme conclusion. The official message of DeVos’ organization, the Great Lakes Education Project, during last summer’s legislative battle was that dissolving the Detroit Public Schools would *protect kids and empower parents,* a cause that came with its own hashtag: #EndDPS. But what GLEP really meant was hard to miss. Detroit is a tax-hoovering abyss whose residents are too corrupt and incompetent to oversee their own schools.
When the GOP in Michigan swept all three branches of government in 2010, plans and schemes that the DeVos family and their conservative allies had been quietly hashing out for years were suddenly on the desk of the new, out-of-nowhere governor, being signed into law. Right to work passed, words that still smart to type if you know even a smidge about the Mitten State’s role as the birthplace of the industrial labor movement. The charter cap got another hike on its way to being eliminated completely. And the Local Government and School District Accountability Act was rammed through, allowing the governor to appoint an emergency manager to assume control of school districts and municipalities in financial distress. Which doesn’t quite convey the dictatorial powers with which the EM was now endowed. He could rip up labor contracts, open and close schools, and sell off public assets, with no public input whatsoever.
You’ve heard about Detroit, and Flint, with its poisoned water, but there are other less well known cases—like Benton Harbor, Muskegon, and Highland Park, which at last count was down to a single public school. Within a few years of Public Act IV’s enactment, half of Michigan’s Black population was living under some form of emergency management. *The municipalities and school districts that have been taken over are predominantly African American and poor,* David Arsen, an economist at Michigan State University, told me when I interviewed him last summer. *The optics are not good, especially in the context of the long civil rights struggle for voting rights.*
As Arsen and a team of researchers documented, the school districts that have fallen into financial distress have something else in common besides demographics: they have lots and lots of charter schools—or as he puts it: *heavy charter penetration.* And the higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances, as districts are confronted with plummeting student enrollment and with a rising population of students in need of special education services. Or put in non-academic terms, the state’s push to expand charter schools in Michigan’s urban districts is creating problems that the state is then stepping into solve by, wait for it, expanding charter schools. Says Arsen: *In most of the districts the state has taken over, very substantial portions of students are now attending charter schools.*
Spend some time plumbing the tax records of the DeVos Family Foundation and you’ll notice something striking. Michigan’s fourth wealthiest family gives virtually nothing to the state’s largest city. In 2013, of the $7 million the family gave away to a cornucopia of organizations religious, school-choice minded, and conservative, less than $30,000 went to groups in Detroit. The DeVos’ focus has long been on the other side of the state, in Grand Rapids. White, conservative and Christian, Grand Rapids is the anti-Detroit. Thanks to significant public investment and a huge infusion of cash from the DeVos family, whose name is plastered on surfaces across the city, Grand Rapids is now a destination. It’s also the second largest city in the state, an honor that once went to Flint, and unlike Flint or Detroit, which continue to hemorrhage residents, it’s growing.
Whether the DeVos’ have succeeded in making Grand Rapids the *cool city,* as a multi-media ad campaign promises, is a question I’ll be investigating when I visit next month for a feature story on DeVos I’m writing. (Note: if my forthcoming end-of-year fund appeal goes well, I’ll be staying at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel!) What IS indisputable though is that the city is the capital of charter school influence in Michigan. Grand Rapids is home to the largest charter school operator in the state, the for-profit National Heritage Academies, whose founder, businessman J.C. Huizenga is a GOP powerhouse and DeVos family ally. And Grand Valley State University, a prominent authorizer of charter schools, including those run by NHA, operates a campus here.
The concentration of charter influence in Grand Rapids —an ever-more powerful charter lobby, a bazillionaire patroness of the cause, a phalanx of loyal legislators—means that the future of Detroit’s schools, and the city itself, if it has one, won’t be decided by people who live in Detroit but by powerbrokers 150 miles to the west. *Betsy DeVos has more say over the Detroit schools than its civic leaders,* one observer told me. Meanwhile, the tilt in influence towards the state and away from local municipalities, with their corruption, incompetence and elected school-board *messiness* so disdained by education reformers, has further concentrated power in the hands of a handful of elites. Put another way, even as DeVos has used her outsized sway to push for market-based education reforms, one of the consequences of those reforms has been to further increase her influence.
The long, long game
The terrifying thing about the dawning of the Trumpian era isn’t just the specific awfulness of the President-elect’s policies. It’s that Trump is what the long gamers think of as *moldable clay,* receptive to whatever plots and plans they’ve spent years dreaming and scheming up. In Michigan, the long game has long been about making over the state’s schools: breaking up the government monopoly over education and getting rid of that pesky prohibition that keeps public monies from following kids to private schools, especially private schools of the religious variety. When Detroit-based writer Allie Gross set out this summer to document the long history of the efforts of the DeVos family and its allies to remake Detroit’s schools, she dug up an archival piece that a reporter at her paper, the Metro Times, wrote in 1995. Gross’ predecessor described a *relentless attack* on Michigan’s public education system, and a *Trojan horse* meant to blur the distinction between public and private schools en route to realizing the real goal: public funding for parochial schools.
And so charter schools in Michigan were born, pushed by a small group of billionaire families with familiar names—DeVos, Prince, which was Betsy’s name before she became a DeVos—along with school choice advocates like Paul DeWeese and Richard McLellan, the founder of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. A close DeVos confederate, McLellan is widely considered to be the real brains behind everything having to do with education reform in Michigan.
I came in contact with McLellan in the unlikeliest of ways: he sent me fan mail in response to a blog post I wrote, in which I lampooned an ill-fated proposal of his called the *Mega School Choice* bill. I referred to McLellan’s proposal as *Reform Turducken*: one privatization scheme stuffed inside another, inside another… *One of the better attacks on the school proposals,* McLellan wrote to me in an email on Christmas night, 2012. I imagined him sitting alone in the deep hush of a cavernous house somewhere in Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills, a cut glass tumbler of scotch nearby—an image that was not unpleasing to me. When an enterprising blogger turned up some 35-year-old notes bearing McLellan’s name, laying out a plan to discredit the public schools (aka: *stop tax hemorrhage to Detroit…*) and *mainstream the ‘choice’ issue,* I asked him if he’d be willing to do an interview with me.
We talked on the phone for an hour and a half—by far the strangest interview I’ve ever done. I told him that as a participant observer in the great unwinding of public education, it was both heartening and horrifying to come across a document that seemed to confirm my worst imaginings. For his part, he mostly regaled me with descriptions of some of the many ideas he’s come up with over the years to disrupt the sclerotic workings of Michigan’s schools. Then he told me the story of how Michigan got a new Republican governor, who had no particular knowledge of education, or specific proposals to propose, and so turned to someone who just happened to have a whole constellation of these handy, all working towards a single long-term goal. *I’ve thought about a lot of these things for a long time,* McLellan said. *I thought, ‘I can throw in a lot of the schemes that we’ve talked about for the last 20 years.’*
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