Steven Norton, the executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools, our affiliate in Michigan, home of Betsy DeVos, shared the following piece responding to a recent op-ed by former MI Governor Mitt Romney’s endorsing DeVos’s nomination by President-Elect Trump as U.S. Secretary of Education.
Taking the people out of public education
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney recently authored a spirited defense of Mrs. Betsy DeVos, president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the US Department of Education. Gov. Romney claims to know and admire Mrs. DeVos. I have never had the opportunity to meet either of them in person, but I have considerable experience with Mrs. DeVos’ agenda for education and the political muscle she and her husband (former Amway chairman Dick DeVos) have been willing to use to get it enacted in my home state of Michigan. Clearly, Gov. Romney does not.
The arguments Gov. Romney makes in his op-ed piece are standard fare in Michigan education politics and could have simply been lifted from the advocacy literature of one of Mrs. DeVos’ advocacy organizations. But public school parents like me, who have no financial stake in the debate, have seen all this before and know better. Those who are eager to hammer away at the foundations of our community-governed public schools like to say that the only people who oppose their agenda are school employees defending their pay and perks. But that’s simply a clever way of covering for the fact that profit, and ideology, are their own core motivations. What have Mrs. DeVos and her allies wrought in Michigan public education? Let’s start with the money.
Some 80% of Michigan’s charter schools are run by private, for profit, management companies – by far the largest share in any state. These firms zealously guard the privacy of their own financial dealings, making only minimal disclosures to the public which funds them. Even charter supporters in the rest of the country acknowledge that Michigan’s system fails to adequately regulate charters and allows poor performance and financial shenanigans too often to go unaddressed. On performance: even the Stanford study Gov. Romney mentions actually found only the barest difference between the test scores of charter and local public school students in Detroit, despite the fact that charters usually do not offer transportation and make other requirements of families that have the effect of selecting their student body. Management companies with awful records are almost never prevented from opening up new schools to add to their profits.
As to financial shenanigans, an in-depth investigative report by the Detroit Free Press not long ago enumerated a whole host of questionable, and sometimes illegal, financial dealings in a charter sector which consumes over $1 billion a year of public money. Inflated rents, questionable land deals, insider sweetheart contracts, and muddied record-keeping plague these schools, which frequently have no existence outside of a theoretically independent board of directors – all else being the domain of the management company. In fact, an optometrist who founded (with much fanfare) two charter schools in northern Michigan – and controlled the for-profit company which managed them – was just sentenced to 41 months in Federal prison for illegally using loans granted for school construction to cover his own business debts. With the exception of the most egregious violations, these for-profit management companies face very little oversight. This is the regulatory system shaped in large part by Betsy and Dick DeVos and their allies, who hold tremendous sway in Michigan politics and dominate the Republican party which controls state government today.
But it would be inaccurate to say that money was Mrs. DeVos’ motivation, though she clearly feels that those who are doing right will also do well. Mrs. DeVos and her family subscribe to a radical view of society in which government – the people – should have almost no role to play. In her view, schools run by the people, for the people, in a secular manner are anathema. Instead, the policies she espouses work to push all education toward private and faith-based management, though using public funds. Outside of Michigan, the organizations she helps to run push for sweeping voucher plans that would leave local public districts as the schools of last resort. Since their effort some years ago to convince Michigan voters to remove a constitutional ban on vouchers ended in a substantial defeat, the DeVos family has focused on growing a nearly unregulated charter sector as a second-best alternative.
The family’s billions gives them considerable political influence and the ability to entice legislators to enact their policy priorities – and to punish them when they do not. Wavering lawmakers are threatened with well-funded primary challenges; those who do not fall into line find themselves on the wrong end of the DeVos billions. The strategy is very effective: most of Mrs. DeVos’ policy priorities have been enacted in state law in some form, and only rarely are the more audacious plans stopped by public outcry.
The Detroit case which Gov. Romney mentions in his opinion piece is a good example. Nearly everyone who follows education issues acknowledges that unregulated charter openings in the city of Detroit have made the system chaotic, with uneven school coverage and a huge oversupply of classroom seats. On the whole, the charter schools perform on a par with the Detroit Public Schools (which should tell us that the problem is not management but poverty). Recent compromise efforts to restructure Detroit schools included a provision that would allow an appointed body to manage the opening, closing, and siting of schools (district or charter) in Detroit. But that and other key provisions were stripped out in the state House, at the strong urging of DeVos-backed advocacy groups. In the end, the legislation’s primary sponsor – a respected Republican state senator from west Michigan – made a floor speech explaining that he could no longer support his own bill. He felt a duty to the people of Detroit, on the other side of the state, just as he did to his own constituents, he said, and could not in good conscience support a bill that he knew was not in the best interest of Detroit children. The measure passed anyway.
This is where Betsy DeVos and her allies have taken education policy in my state. Raw political power overrides whatever the residents of our communities truly want. Strategies that have failed to improve education for our children are nevertheless etched in stone because of the core ideological beliefs of a few of our citizens. Years ago, my state had one of the best school systems in the country. Mrs. DeVos’ agenda has not served Michigan well. Why on earth should our nation embrace it?