School Choice Leads to Segregation

Don’t believe me? Pay a visit to Betsy DeVos’ hometown…

To see for yourself how school choice leads to segregation, I recommend a visit to Betsy DeVos’ hometown of Holland, MI. Here, two decades of the policies that the Trump/DeVos education budget now wants to take national have resulted in white flight and school closures, leaving Holland’s poor and minority students segregated in the few schools that remain open. I traveled to Holland last week for the annual Tulip Time festival, a celebration of the city’s Dutch heritage. But along with Dutch shoes and swagger, the legacy of Michigan’s now two decade-long experiment with school choice was on vivid display as well, and it wasn’t pretty.

First, some background. During the endless runup to DeVos’ confirmation hearing last year, it was the Wild West-style school choice she’d pushed in Detroit that garnered most of the attention. But DeVos was also behind Michigan’s inter-district choice policies that, starting in 2000, *disrupted* neighborhood attendance zones, just as the proposed Trump/DeVos education budget seeks to do. In Michigan, school choice has become the new white flight as white families have fled their resident districts for schools and districts that are less diverse. The most dramatic example of this may be in DeVos’ own home town of Holland.

The choice to segregate
Since Michigan adopted the school choice policies DeVos is now pushing across the country, Holland’s white enrollment has dropped by more than 60%, as students decamped for public schools or charters in whiter communities nearby. The students who remain in the Holland Public Schools are now majority Hispanic and overwhelmingly poor—twice the schools’ poverty rate when Michigan’s school choice experiment began.  Many of these students are the children of migrant farm workers who came to this part of the state to pick fruit; school choice enabled Holland’s white families to pick not to attend school with them. One in three students in Holland no longer attends school there, and since the money follows the child in the Mitten State, yet another DeVos priority, white flight has eaten the district’s finances too.

In 2000, Holland had fifteen schools. Now it has just eight. Of nine Holland schools that once served elementary students, half have closed. By 2009, even the elementary school where DeVos’ mother once taught had been shuttered. As students flee for schools in communities like Zeeland, the future of Holland’s public schools looks increasingly dire. Already there are mutterings in this wealthy, Dutch-dominated community that the school population *doesn’t represent* Holland. And as DeVos well understands, a community that has little stake in its schools is unlikely to shell out money to pay for them.

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Volksparade Grand Marshal Elsa Prince Broekhuizen.

The People’s Parade (to whiter school districts)
Last week, at the very moment that graduates of Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University were turning their backs on Betsy DeVos, I was within shouting distance of her mother. This is not as weird as it sounds. I’m writing a book about how the Midwest turned red, and why the war on public schools in states like Michigan is so key to understanding that story. When a former GOP state rep invited me to be his plus one at the annual Tulip Time luncheon at Hope College’s DeVos Field House, I was unable to resist. The luncheon, which had featured Governor One Tough Nerd not talking about Flint to a crowd of local elites, was over and the day’s big event, the first Tulip Time parade, was about to kick off. Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, the patroness of causes Christian and conservative and mother to Betsy and Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince, was to be the parade’s grand marshal.

As it happened, this particular procession was known as the *Volksparade,* or People’s Parade. One Tough Nerd, decked out in full Dutch regalia down to wooden shoes and a bucket and broom (you had to be there), was at the front of the line. But the real star of the show were the school bands. As they made their way through the streets of downtown Holland, showing off their skills and drills, the segregating power of school choice was on vivid display as well. The Holland Public Schools Marching Band was the only group to navigate the parade route in Dutch wooden shoes. They were also the only minority student body in the entire parade.

Then there were all of the schools in neighboring communities which students in Holland now attend. Here came Black River Public School, a charter that is only a mile from Holland but serves a student body that is 75% white. Four hundred students from Holland attend Black River. Zeeland was in the house too. More than 250 students who live in Holland now make the five mile trek east to this small community with schools that are 80% white. And here came Hamilton High School, 90% white, and now home to more than 150 students who live in Holland. You get the point.

Sorting out
Betsy DeVos’ own alma mater, Holland Christian High School, closed out the *Volksparade.* These are the children of local Dutch elites, their heritage reflected in ranks that were not only entirely white but exclusively blonde. In Holland, *Christian* refers to the Christian Reform Church, a Calvinist offshoot organized around the tenet of predestination, meaning that God has already determined the salvation of individuals. Members of the Holland Christian High School Marching Band marched with the certain swagger that comes with knowing exactly where one is headed: college and heaven.

The Trump/DeVos education budget was made public on the 63rd anniversary of Brown vs. Board. DeVos’ vision isn’t just a retreat from Brown—it embodies the spirit that animated its opponents to set up segregation academies in Brown’s wake. The budget that bears her imprint would encourage and even incentivize white flight. We don’t have to speculate about where all this leads. The outcome of the kind of school choice policies that DeVos has pushed for decades in her home state and now wants every state to embrace has been starkly measurable segregation. And even that is an understatement. What I witnessed in DeVos’ hometown last week was extreme sorting on the basis of race and class. That the top education official in the country thinks this is a good thing is appalling.


  1. When school busing was ordered to desegregate schools, the outcry from the white population was rabid and even violent. Why, they demanded, should our kids have to travel miles out of their district just to please the government.

    Apparently, having their kids travel miles out of their district so they don’t have to have contact with “those people” is an acceptable alternative.

  2. thank you thank you for writing such an honest article I am a retired HPS teacher and witnessed the decline and closing of our elementary schools. It was a great sadness for us. When I drive by the empty lots where such great schools once stood , I am reminded once again what school choice did to our once outstanding public schools. Out current superintendent , Brian Davis is doing a very creative job of keeping the HPS active and viable . He works hard in spite of many obstacles , providing educational opportunities for minority students. We remain proud of of our students and their achievements which many times lead to college in spite of their hardships along the way

    1. Hi there–thanks so much for reading and responding. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to meet you and Brian Davis while I was there this time – but I plan to return and would love the opportunity to learn more about Holland and its schools. And if you’d be interested in writing something for my blog, I’d love to have you!

    2. A significant aspect of the decline in HPS population came from
      Families leaving SW Michigan from 2006 -2010 when large job
      Losses occurred in SW Michigan… My understanding is that
      Holland Christian schools were not organized as a response
      To school integration in the 1960’ is an institution more
      Than 100 years old…. And no mention whatsoever of elitist
      Black River Public Schools…. This article is biased and does not represent a total picture..ONLY one that is slanted against
      Betsy DeVos..

      1. All the data I cite comes from the Center for Michigan, which made Holland the center of its report on segregation and choice because it’s such an extreme example. They explicitly note that the plunge in enrollment in Holland wasn’t because the number of kids dropped, it was because white families left the district: 2100 since school choice was adopted in Michigan. I didn’t make any claim to the effect that Holland Christian Schools were organized in the 1960’s. I said that DeVos’ vision was the same that animated opponents of integration to set up separate schools in the wake of the Brown decision. And my piece explicitly mentions Black River Public School, which is the single largest recipient of white students who leave Holland. Thanks for reading and I encourage you to take a look at the Center for Michigan Research for yourself. You can use this database to see where the 33% of Holland students who choice out of the district are going.

  3. Great article! As relatively newcomers (10 years) we were not privy to what had gone on in previous years regarding HPS. I taught on the east side of the state and had never heard of attending a school outside your district. We had schools of choice but within the district. You wanted to attend outside, you paid tuition to that district. I imagine that has changed there as well. I am proud to say that my grandsons attend HPS. Jefferson to be exact and we are happy that they are receiving an education in a diverse public forum. There are however, 4 elementary schools in HPS and one elementary language school. Your article says two.

  4. The inception of Schools of Choice has caused the same situation in many Michigan communities. My husband and I grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan. We graduated in a class of 500 students at Battle Creek Central. Today there are only 400 in the entire building. BCPS was called “The Pride of the State” at that time. It was a diverse community of students. Today, there are few elementary buildings left open. Last week the district, now in financial difficulty, has accepted the helping hand of the Kellogg Foundation to keep it afloat. Over the years, parents opted to send their kids to Lakeview, Pennfield, and Harper Creek. Parents are trying to keep their kids away from situations and families that they feel will impact their children adversely. They are afraid that their children will not be able to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. Schools of Choice is not the answer. Strong support for community schools is required. There are many ways citizens in the community can offer support to local schools and families. Diverse communities teach so much to children about honoring cultures, and families, and prepares them for what lies ahead.

    As a Holland resident, and a former Grand Rapids area band mom, I wanted to say that the Holland Public Schools Band performance on Saturday was spectacular. Their marching posture was terrific, their lines were straight, and the musicianship was excellent. The band teachers in both middle and high schools are doing a terrific job. I am a proud tax paying supporter of Holland Public Schools.

    1. Thanks for this. Not being familiar with high school bands I lacked the terminology to describe how great they were (though obviously I was very impressed by their wooden shoes!) I came back on Saturday to see them again and thought they were even better than in the Volksparade. And while I haven’t been to Battle Creek, I’m planning on visiting in the fall. I did make it to Kalamazoo though and was able to meet with the superintendent there to talk about the Kalamazoo Promise, which I’ll be writing about soon. It speaks to the power of what you’re talking about as far as parents wanting to protect their kids from adverse impacts that even the promise of free college isn’t enough to keep white parents from fleeing the district. Btw: the Center for Michigan has an amazing database that you can search to see how many kids are leaving a particular district and where they’re going. Here’s Battle Creek: 43% of the kids in the city attend school in a district or at a school that isn’t in Battle Creek…

  5. As a parent of one graduate and two students that are currently attending HPS, I wish you hadn’t painted such a dire picture of our district. We don’t see it that way at all. Our family chose HPS because of it’s diversity and the excellent education that is offered. Our graduates are going to all the same colleges that students from surrounding districts are going to.
    Yes, the things you describe are happening, both financial and racially, and school choice has had devastating effects on student performance in Michigan. But that doesn’t mean our district is dying. In fact, the opposite is happening. There is a waiting list for the two way bilingual immersion program. 20-some students just graduated with an associates degree and high school diploma in the same year. Every single one of our high school music departments received division one ratings in state competitions this year. And our competitive theatre team won another state championship this year.
    People exercise schools of choice for many reasons, and I would argue that our district is better off that those who make a school choice to a more segregated school are gone.

    1. I fully agree, Steve. We have chosen to be a part of HPS and couldn’t be prouder of the staff, administration, and kids there. The diversity is a positive draw for us, as well, and we are so thankful that our kids are able to learn with and grow in admiration of those who come from very different backgrounds and resources. We feel that so many are missing out on what the public schools have to offer…excellent academics, top-notch visual and performing arts programs, early college, plus…the wooden shoes – builds character.

    2. Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to spend time in Holland’s schools or meet your superintendent. But this piece was really about the measurable impact of choice on the very town that Betsy DeVos is from. She would probably argue, by the way, that it was the forces of competition that caused Holland’s schools to have to work harder. But she has no answer for – or even interest in – the role that choice is playing in resegregating Michigan’s schools. I’ll be back there in the fall and am looking forward to seeing more!

  6. Hi Jennifer!

    It seems like your reader’s takeaway from the article was that Holland Michigan is a racist town. My sister lives overseas and also grew up in Holland. She had to text my entire family to see if Holland changed to a hostile place for minorities after reading your article!!

    I’m on the same team as you. I want equal education for all!!! But telling people that your article wasn’t meant to paint Holland as racist and to wait until you come back in the fall to get a better understanding of the community is similar to when Sean Spicer tells people, they just didn’t get his point. He’s not retracting his words. However, impression was formed and whatever is said first becomes truth 🙁

    You are a strong voice in the education community and it is important that you speak with as much understanding about the communities and districts that you write about, since we really only get to talk about our issues once. I would hate for somebody on the fence about school vouchers to be turned off by the inaccurate portrayal of Holland from an outsiders point of view.

    When Hollanders celebrate the Dutch culture, we celebrate our great town and all that the community provided us! I got such a great education. I was afforded so many opportunities because of this community!!

    On another note, I never felt like I couldn’t be a Dutch dancer because I was Asian. The thought never would have crossed my mind that an Asian in Dutch garb could be conceived as abnormal until I read about the wooden shoe thing in your blog.

    There are many “non-measurables” that are not discussed in your article which can attribute to why there are less Caucasians in the charter school system.

    FIRST: Time as a resource- MY factory working parents didn’t “shop” for the best school. They were more focused on, “where can I afford a house for my huge family.” They didn’t have the time or energy to go to parent teacher conferences or to pick me up from school. I couldn’t imagine them saying, “I’m going to fill out three hours of paperwork, one for each of my many children” so they can go to this so and so school. In their view, children being able to attend school was enough.

    SECOND: Culture- Back from where my parents were from, some kids couldn’t attend school because they couldn’t pay tuition or be spared from working to bring money to the parents. The idea of choice seems cray to them when there’s a good school down the street.

    THIRD: Awareness- Many people of diverse backgrounds just don’t know about the options available to them or have the bandwidth to research and motherhen their child’s education.

    Say we lose the fight, and school vouchers are a thing. We need to have a plan B. We need to provide the resources to help parents understand their children’s options, assist with completing paperwork, and providing transportation to “out of network” school systems. Is this article about education equality? Or about “of course Betsy is racist, look at her “racist hometown.”

    Yes, the problem is we are seeing mostly white children going to Black River, but why?

    You might think that people from Holland are weirdos for being so passionate about our town. It’s like an Austin fan, you just have to wear the Burnt Orange, but instead of Burnt Orange, we just have tulip posters, pictures of our lighthouse, and a strong feeling of community long after we’ve left our hometown. I think that is a strong indicator of whether people of color experienced racism while living in Holland. Would we embrace it, move back if we could, talk amongst our many diverse friends, continue celebrating our hometown. Yes!!

    1. Thanks much for this response. My piece looks at one question: what happened to Holland’s schools as a result of the choice policies that DeVos backed first in Michigan and is now pushing across the state? I drew on research that was done by the Center for Michigan that has been out there for anyone to see. My trip back to Holland this fall is to explore a much larger question. A hostility to public education is baked into Holland’s fabric. You see, the founder of your fine city thought that public schools were *incompatible or antagonistic to a sound Christian education.* And yet public education is baked into Michigan’s fabric. The Northwest Territories act that created the Mitten State provided for public schools before the state even existed. There may be no other place in the country where this battle rages on the way it has in Holland, and the fact that we now have as the top education official in the land someone who falls so solidly in the *hostile camp* affects us all!

      I’d love to meet up with you when I’m back there again. And btw, my next Michigan story is about Kalamazoo, where an anonymous wealthy benefactor has opened up his or her wallet for the past 11 years to provide free college to the city’s kids. It’s a very different model than, say, opening up a charter school like Black River which requires kids to have an acceptance letter to a four year college to graduate…

  7. Also, when you use the words like “segregation,” it denotes segregation is a thing in Holland. To me, is shows your unintended biase.

    I never used this word growing up cause it didn’t exist in the actions or world around me. It’s like a talking about segregation to a Vietnamese person in Vietnam. They don’t understand it because they don’t experience it.

    1. My biases are completely intentional and I can’t imagine trying to write about education today, least of all in a state like Michigan, without using the word segregation. It would be like Governor Snyder coming to the Tulip Time luncheon and not mentioning Flint!

  8. Did anyone make you aware that a few years ago, HPS did away with neighborhood elementary schools in favor of grade specific schools? A first grader living a 5 minute walk from a school could end up being bused 5 miles away to the “first grade” school. This not only increased transportation costs, but caused quite an uproar with parents. This policy didn’t endear itself to residents. HPS should share some of the responsibility for their decline. I do wish HPS success, and I have family in the system. I wanted to make sure you knew, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story”.

    1. Hi there–I saw that HPS had done some reorganization but didn’t know about grade specific schools. Did they do it to save money? The typical story in Michigan as choice mushroomed over the past two decades was budget slashing that then led more parents to flee the districts being slashed. In the most dire situations, the districts got emergency managers. In Holland what seems to have happened is that certain parents left and others didn’t, the cause of which merits investigation. I’d love to know more if you want to share!

  9. Dear Ms.Berkshire,

    I must say I’m a bit disappointed about how you have chosen to portray the school I attend. I’m not here to argue over “school of choice”, but I am here to call you out on some remarks you made about my school. I don’t particularly enjoy being called an elitist, directly or not. I won’t deny that my school certainly has wealthier families within it, but that is not everyone here. A majority of my peers dwell in the range of middle-class family incomes, and my own parents work hard to be able to afford the education I’m receiving.

    Also, yes Holland Christian does have quite a few blonde and blue eyed students. However, Holland carries a high Dutch population by default (it’s called Holland for goodness sake). Holland public’s athletics go as ‘Holland Dutch’ and as you noted in your article they wear wooden shoes in our ‘Tulip time’ parades. I think you need to consider that you visited Holland for a snapshot of time. Hardly enough to begin making pointed comments about local youth and schools. If you were to live here there’s some context you might know and should take into account. The tone of your article feels a bit accusatory towards my school and really I see no need for it. I have never felt as a student that our school was directly competing against other local schools. Schools in Holland have always had friendly relations and everyone has friends in other schools. This year has been especially difficult for all of us as many local schools have lost students/teachers including my own. As a community, we’ve leaned heavily on each other through loss and grief so please don’t describe us as if we act like we’re better than others.

    In short, I believe the purpose of your article would be better well served by arguing more statistics and facts instead of making snide remarks about high schoolers. I’m aware this is most likely an argument I won’t win, but I think it was something that needed to be said. Betsy Devos may have attended our school, but that in no way, shape, or form gives you the right to stereotype me or my peers. We have no desire to be your battleground and quite frankly, after the year we’ve had, we truely don’t deserve this.

    Yours Respectfully-

    1. Thanks to both of you for responding to my piece. I’ve been amazed at the response that the story has gotten from people in Holland and am looking forward to meeting some of them when I’m out there in the fall at work on what will be a longer, more in depth version of this article for a book that I’m working on.

      I’m sorry that you found my characterization of Holland Christian High offensive. I would actually be very interested in learning more from you about what it’s like to attend school in a place like Holland. Would you have any interest in writing something that I could post on my blog? Since it sounds like many people at Holland High were offended and hurt, perhaps you could write it as a group piece.

      I feature student voices on my blog and in my podcasts regularly. The debate about school choice is one that we’re going to be having for the foreseeable future and I think it’s essential that people have a better sense of how students view these issues.

      Let me know what you think!

    2. Wisdom! “out of the mouth of babes!” This comment speaks exactly what needs to be said!

      Any Holland Resident wants to encourage and promote Ms. Berkshires false ideas about our Amazinly Unified Community needs to move out of our town so that harmful mentality does not spread here. I have family in Holland Christian and Holland Public they swim together and enjoy sharing this community together. Hence why an article with judgements like this can hinder vs help. Our kids will be attending a faith base School not because we are wealthy but if you didn’t noticed FAITH is important to us in this town!
      Representing Holland Christian and Public: If you are coming back to our home to share your bias ideas and accuse any School Community. Stay Home. Thanks! We enjoy sharing our community with people who want to get to know us without coming in how you did. I am slightly embarrassed for you.

  10. Hello there. While I myself am not a fan of Betsy Devoss’s education policies, I would like to point at that this article is a snide misrepresentation of the schooling situation in Holland, at best. There are many problems with what you said here, but as I am a student at Holland Christian (one who is in fact in the marching band picture you featured) I will only speak to that. Pardon my language’ and please don’t take me as a representative for my school, buy I barely even know where to begin with your snarky bs. For starters, you claim that our band is some sort of all white, blonde hair, blue eyes SS youth group, but you neglected to notice the several Asian exchange students, one of whom is in the front row of the picture you put in your blog. There are also many hispanic students in the school and band. That doesn’t fit the narrative though, does it. As for your nonesense about predestination, I asked several of my peers what that meant. None of them even knew. Students come from a variety of demonominational backgrounds. Many Weslyans, Baptists, Presbytarians, Reformed, and yes, Christian reformed. The majority are probanly non-denominational. I’m an atheist with a Christian Reformed background. The point is the school is diverse in the religious sense. Furthermore as someone with a Christian Reformed background, I can tell you that at school and at church we are taught to worry more about followingn the teachings of Christ in this life than we are in the afterlife. The afterlife and predestination are rarely, if ever brought up, and such things are viewed even by most conservstives as a theological abstraction not worth attention. So yes we march with swagger. But not because we think we’re better than anyone else. It’s because we are a f***ing marching band who is out there to entertain a crowd who came out to see swaggering marching bands. We do a lot of work and practice for these parades celebrating our wonderful heritage and diverse community and for you to shit all over us for a political agenda (one I don’t entirely disagree with, mind you) really just makes you seem like a killjoy. It’s true, Holland Christian is not as racially diverse as perhaps it could be, although there is a wealth of exchange students from foreign countries, who all hated and disagreed with your article by the way. It has always been this way though at Holland Christian for a variety of reasons. Holland used to be mostly white anyway, but recently there has been an influx of Hispanics into the community. (They are wonderful, and there are several tulip time events focused around their culture that you ignored.) They don’t want to shell out the high tution money for a simple reason: most of them are Catholic, not protestant. While there are a few catholocs at the school, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for latino parents, many of whom are newly immigrated, to shell out cash to go to a protestant school when they are catholic. Sorry for any spelling or grammatical errors this is on mobile. I would like to stress that I’m not represntative of the Holland Christian body. Most of them are nicer than I am (and more religious) and have opted to turn the other cheek. Also, I don’t write this purely to be rude. My peers amd I have been genuinely hurt and offended by what you wrote, especially in light of our hard work for the parade, and O felt this needed addressing. Hopefully it’s not blocked.

  11. HAVE YOU HEARD This Article is CRAP? I was born and raised in Holland MI and worked in Corporate America in Orlando for many years. I have been educated inside Holland and Outside! I graduated Holland Public High 1995. Our family had limited means being a single parent home. Went to school with many kids who lived on South Shore Drive. Coming from affluent homes. I assure you back then and now today with my family now attending HCH; the school kids are not living segregated. Our senior this year and all other kids have friends who attend Holland Public to this day! So when does this so called segregation happening? Because when I was in Holland Public and now my family in Holland Chritian to this day, ARE NOT LIVING Segregated!!! I have seen both Holland Public and Holland Cristian compete in sports together recently this year! So when is this Segregation happening? Liar!!! Maybe you have our Community confuse for Elsewhere? Sorry, here in My hometown we enjoy unity between Schools, churches and businesses. Though, it’s easy to judge on a subject when bitterness doesn’t allow for you to do any legitimate research.

    You said “the Marching band consist of all blondes/ white kids knowing they are going to college and heaven”
    Here is some REALITY for that Degenerate statement:
    My baby cousin Marches in the HCH Band. She is a brown hair LATINA, being raised by a single mom who shops at Aldis to make budgets stretch! I guess you didn’t see her beautiful brunette face? Also, at one of my older cousins graduations from Holland Christian. They honored another single mom who cleaned houses to put her kids through a faith base school. And back to my brown hair Latina Marching band Very hard working cousin, we hope she earns a scholarship because we are not sure how her college tuition will be covered! Yep Lady! Your Ignorance of this judgemental post reveals your bitter heart and instead of Encouraging and inspiring you choose to use your 5 minutes of Internet Attention to speak of a subject you didn’t do any homework on! Please learn to be teachable and know we still look forward to see growth from you! No one is a lost cause! Not even Ignorant People! Also know both sides of the tracks of this town ( I have lived on both) don’t appreciate people fabricating about our life in Holland! Go work for the National Enquier they love embellished don’t care if the story checks out or not!!!

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