Uncategorized — December 16, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Betsy DeVos, Steve Ingersoll, and Michigan as a “cautionary tale” for American education


The news yesterday that Bay City, MI charter school operator Dr. Steve Ingersoll had been sentenced to 41 months in federal prison after being convicted on three counts of tax evasion and conspiracy should be sending shivers up Betsy DeVos’ spine today. Because while Dr. Ingersoll and Ms. DeVos may not know one another, the connections between them are numerous, significant, and absolutely chilling.

As I’ve written about previously, Dr. Ingersoll (he’s an eye doctor, with no degrees in education), is the poster child for what’s wrong with Michigan’s approach to regulation and oversight of the state’s charter schools…

Charter school proponents claim that charters offer options for parents who are disappointed in what their public schools provide, and this “choice” is about giving children better options. A recent story in the Detroit Free Press spins a “soap opera” style tale of nepotism, cronyism, crazy ideas about how children learn, bank fraud, and embezzlement. Michigan’s charter school “industry”–and that’s what it is, an industry; not an educational system, but rather a business model designed to steal public money and slip it into private bank accounts–is wildly out of control, an unregulated Wild West playground for unscrupulous hucksters, quacks and charlatans who see our school system and our children as an untapped well-spring of profits. And the stream is flowing.

Let’s be clear: the charter school “industry” is not about kids, learning or “choice.” This unregulated explosion of charters is about money, and lots of it. This eye doctor funneled millions of taxpayer dollars into his private bank account. This was essentially a money laundering operation, not substantially different from how drug dealers set up a legitimate business, run it at a loss in order to turn “dirty” money into “clean” money, and then walk away when the heat gets too hot. [See: Breaking Bad.]

What’s lost here is any discussion of Dr. Ingersoll’s “innovative” approach to learning, “Integrated Visual Learning,” which has to do with rapid eye movements. Here’s a teacher’s account of IVL, and how it was used in Dr. Ingersoll’s school:

“His claims were/are at best a novelty in my opinion. If I recall correctly, students were initially given a screener to see how their eyes tracked on a page of text. This was done with a special machine and a pair of glasses hooked up to the machine. If their eyes didn’t track from left to right (as in how a person reads a page of text) and from one line to the next in the correct “zig zag” pattern during reading, then they were considered to need “therapy.” Therapy was expensive and rarely covered by insurance.”

What’s missing here is any description of how children learn. How does this “test” help teachers adapt instruction? What happens when a child’s eyes don’t zig zag? Are they taught differently, or just not admitted to the school?

Um, not so much…according to another teacher:

“There was NO room in the school specifically for IVL testing. There may have been equipment, but kids were never observed for vision. The IVL methods were taught to all kids, because Ingersoll made the staff do it; middle school and high school as well. Even the Special Education teachers had to teach it. which meant critical standards were not met.”

So while we don’t know if Dr. Ingersoll knows anything about children, or learning, or schools, here’s what we do know:

1. He stole our money.
2. He subjected our children to radical, untested teaching methods.
3. People like this should not be permitted to set foot in our schools, much less run them.

To summarize, Dr. Ingersoll had no background in education, no experience as a teacher, and used the confluence of his position as a charter school advocate and operator, and Michigan’s near complete lack of charter school oversight, to embezzle millions of dollars of state tax revenues for his own personal gain. Dr. Ingersoll was entrusted to run a (nominally public) school in Northern Michigan, a responsibility he was utterly unqualified to be entrusted with, and abused that responsibility to subject children to radical, untested “pedagogical” strategies, while generating immense personal financial wealth in the process.

What does any of this have to do with Betsy DeVos, one might wonder?

Consider the following similarities between Dr. Ingersoll’s case and Ms. DeVos’ influence on Michigan’s education policy arena:

  • How did Michigan’s charter school “sector” become so unregulated, and ripe for fraud and other financial hijinks? As it turns out, the DeVos family is almost entirely to blame for this disastrous situation:

“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:

The role of donors and groups they fund has been so impactful in the ongoing Detroit Public Schools (DPS) debate that one lawmaker involved in the negotiations alleged this week that it was “the only factor” in a recent House vote. And some are even raising concerns about who’s being given the chance to sway lawmakers on the matter. They note that the lead GOP senator on DPS and the mayor of Detroit requested but weren’t granted the opportunity to present to House Republicans in a closed-door caucus meeting. But the House GOP says that had to do with timing.

According to campaign finance disclosures, six of the stakeholders trying to sway the future of education in Detroit and their relatives have given roughly $10 million over the last decade to sitting state lawmakers, their caucuses and their political parties. The contributions have touched just about everyone in the Legislature.

The biggest donors have been members of the West Michigan-based DeVos family who are charter school proponents. Over the last 10 years, members of the family have given at least $6.1 million directly to the Michigan Republican Party, about $752,200 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and about $1.1 million to the House Republican Campaign Committee.

And now, groups the DeVos family supports are urging lawmakers to safeguard charter schools and school choice in whatever DPS solution is reached. It’s something House Republicans did when they voted on a package last week.

“It’s crystal clear that had the DeVoses not been opposed to this, it would have had a different future,” one source involved in the negotiations alleged.”

  • Like Dr. Ingersoll, Ms. DeVos is stunningly unqualified to be entrusted with a position managing public education, let alone as Secretary of Education. Neither Ingersoll or DeVos ever studied education. Neither has ever taught in a public school. Neither has ever studied public or education policy. Both of these persons have obtained their positions as education “decision makers” through using their personal power and wealth to influence the ways that schools in Michigan have been funded, managed, and operated. And, as a result, many children, families, and communities have suffered, and the public’s trust in our educational institutions has been shaken.
  • Dr. Ingersoll was charged with improperly accounting for millions of dollars in state tax revenues, and found guilty of failing to file tax returns between the years of 2012-15 (Ingersoll’s federal case focused on 2009, 2010 and 2011). With the building in foreclosure, “the Madison Arts Campus of Bay City Academy” was forced to close its doors, creating havoc for the school’s students and their families as they scrambled to find new schools for their children to attend in the middle of the Fall semester.

In what could be a parallel story line, the political action committee (PAC) founded by Ms. DeVos, All Children Matter, has been found to have violated Ohio’s campaign finance laws, and has refused to pay over $5.2 million in fines. As reported in Eclectablog, a coalition of Democratic US Senators have demanded that Ms. DeVos immediately pay these fines, which date back to 2008:

The bipartisan Ohio Elections Commission unanimously found both the federal and Ohio All Children Matter PACs to have violated the state’s campaign finance laws and imposed fines of $5.2 million. An Ohio court subsequently upheld the fine and imposed additional late fees for failing to pay. Rather than pay the fines for violating the law, the All Children Matter PACs simply ceased operation and never paid the significant sum it owed to the state of Ohio.

  • In addition to not paying her debts, Ms. DeVos also shares Dr. Ingersoll’s affection for closing schools. In her February 2016 editorial in the Detroit News, Ms. DeVos spoke with barely contained glee about the possibility of mass closings of Detroit Public Schools:

Other potential reforms include improving early literacy; A-F letter grading that provides parents with meaningful information on school performance; aggressive intervention – including closure – of the state’s lowest performing traditional and charter schools…

This is not an educational policy position; it has nothing to do with children, teachers, schools, or learning. It’s an opportunistic and immoral “robber baron” approach to business–similar to the “vulture capitalism” practiced by former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Bain Capital that left thousands of workers unemployed, and dozens of companies destroyed. Here’s how it worked:

(Romney) helped to create Bain Capital, a private equity firm that makes its money by buying functional US manufacturing and service firms and rendering them dysfunctional. Bain guts American companies, ripping out whatever parts are profitable and then tossing the workers aside.

Bain forces cuts in wages, benefits and pensions. It outsources work. And it offshores production—harming American workers and communities and undermining American industries.

This plan should sound frighteningly familiar, because it’s what Betsy DeVos has in store for America’s public schools:

  • establish a false narrative that our public schools are “failing”–they are not. Graduation rates are at an all-time high, and the “achievement gap” is narrowing.
  • render them dysfunctional
  • gut the public schools, and convert what remains to privately-managed charters, while fabricating myths about dramatic school system turnarounds
  • “outsource” the roles of classroom teachers by substituting technology (i.e., online and virtual schools) for teachers, and replacing experienced, qualified, and certified career teachers with unqualified, uncertified novices in our most under-resourced schools

So, what’s the takeaway here?

If you’re concerned about how Dr. Steve Ingersoll, a small town eye doctor with no experience in education, was somehow allowed to wreak so much havoc in one Northern Michigan community, you should be absolutely terrified about what Betsy DeVos, a well-connected West Michigan billionaire heiress and avowed critic of public education, could accomplish as our next Secretary of Education.


Note: Thank you to Anita Senkowski for her helpful information and suggestions in the preparation of this post.