NOTE: This post is a companion piece to this week’s episode of The Sit and Spin Room podcast. Click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the post to listen to the podcast or find it wherever you get your podcasts by searching for “Sit and Spin Room” on iTunes, Stitcher, etc.
The news that President-elect Donald Trump had nominated Michigan billionaire and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as our next Secretary of Education seemed to take the educational establishment by surprise. But public school teachers and supporters in Michigan weren’t surprised at all. They saw Ms. DeVos’ ascendancy to this lofty position as the final piece in an elaborately constructed jig saw puzzle that the DeVos family has been patiently working on, at their opulent vacation homes and on their luxury yacht, for the last couple of decades. And now that the final piece has been added, we will all soon see the “big picture” of the DeVos’ vision for the future of American education: Privatize, Monetize, Weaponize.
As Michiganders know, Betsy and Dick DeVos are religious and school privatization/choice/voucher zealots. They were humiliated by the twin failures of voucher legislation in 2000 and Dick’s loss in the Michigan governor’s race to Jennifer Granholm in 2006, and these dual humiliations resulted in the development of the DeVos’ “long-game” strategy to achieve their goals of privatizing public education:
- destroy the Democrats biggest single source of financial support by gutting teacher unions via Right to Work legislation
- capitalize on the elimination of the charter school “cap” to explode the number of non-regulated and for-profit charter schools in the state
- use charter schools as the mechanism to “blur the lines” between public and private/religious schools
- use this “blurring” of boundaries between church and state to build public support for the redistribution of public funds to religious and private schools
Based on what we know about her beliefs regarding education, Ms. DeVos’ ultimate goal, as I wrote about in a recent Eclectablog post, appears to be:
a two-tiered educational system:
One, a system of elite private and religious schools for well-to-do, mostly White parents with the means to afford expensive tuition payments, staffed by qualified, certified teachers, with a rich curriculum based on face-to-face instruction in clean, safe, well-maintained schools…
The other, a parallel system of “fly by night” virtual and online “schools” that open and close seemingly at random, and for-profit charters operated by scam artists like Northern Michigan’s Dr. Steve Ingersoll, with little to no state or federal regulation or oversight, and a bare bones, “back to the basics” curriculum delivered by unqualified and uncertified “teachers”.
The timeline below offers a narrative sketch of some of the pivotal events and influences that have shaped Ms. DeVos’ views on education over the years, and provides a context for what her policy stances and positions are likely to be as Secretary of Education.
2000/2006: The “Twin Humiliations” of Vouchers and Election Defeats
Rachel Tabachnik has done some outstanding investigative reporting on the DeVos family and their behind the scenes work on getting voucher legislation advanced across the country. Here, she explains some of the background surrounding the voucher movement’s origins and identifies Betsy DeVos as the “four-star general” of this movement:
(Milton) Friedman has promoted vouchers for decades, most famously in his masterwork Free to Choose, the story of how public funds are actually being transferred to private, often religious, schools is a study in the ability of a few wealthy families, along with a network of right-wing think tanks, to create one of the most successful “astroturf” campaigns money could buy. Rather than openly championing dismantling the public school system, they promote bringing market incentives and competition into education as a way to fix failing schools, particularly in low-income Black and Latino communities.
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling deregulated campaign finance and unleashed millions in political donations, concentrated wealth has played a role in politics. Now in the limelight for its attacks on unions and the exposure of 800 model bills and documents, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has produced model bills favorable to its corporate and right-wing funders behind closed doors for decades–including school vouchers and tax credit bills. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State described Betsy DeVos as the “four-star general” of the school privatization movement shortly after DeVos announced the formation of the “new” American Federation for Children (AFC) in March 2010. As Boston noted, the American Federation for Children was not new, but a rebranding of an organization called Advocates for School Choice.
Vouchers had first been pursued in Michigan in 1972, and then again in 1978, when nearly 75% of the state’s voters sent the measure to a crushing defeat. But these failures didn’t dissuade the DeVoses from making a third, yet again unsuccessful, attempt at forcing vouchers through the state legislature in 2000.
In a scenario that eerily mirrors the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when a still-contempating-a-run-at-the-Presidency Donald Trump was humiliated by President Obama, the DeVos family was devastated by the public’s overwhelming rejection of their family-funded, strong-arm attempt at ramming vouchers through the MI state legislature.
MI’s educators know Betsy DeVos best for a push to allow vouchers in Michigan, which would have allowed parents to use public money to put their children through private schools.
The roadblock? Michigan’s constitution, which states, “No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized… to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school.”
The DeVos family pushed a constitutional change to allow for vouchers in 2000. It failed. But now Michigan educators are worrying Betsy DeVos will take up the issue again in her new position.
The stinging defeat of her voucher measure (69% of Michigan voters disapproved) in 2000, in conjunction with her husband’s crushing loss in 2006 to Jennifer Granholm in the governor’s race, only galvanized Ms. DeVos’ resolve. The very next year (2001) she founded the Great Lakes Education Project, the PAC that serves as her education policy “Blackwater” in the fight against public schools, teacher unions, and teachers.
Ms. DeVos then turned her family’s “philanthropic” efforts to a target that would prove critical in the corporate reform agenda: Right to Work. Aided and abetted by a weak and easily manipulated Governor–who initially claimed he had “no interest” in pursuing RTW legislation–Ms. DeVos cannily managed the RTW campaign, achieving a stunning victory in 2013.
How did she do it? It wasn’t pretty:
“According to labor lobbyists and House and Senate Republican staffers, several undecided GOP lawmakers received threats of primary challenges from Team DeVos if they opposed right-to-work. One House Republican told me that Weiser called him up to suggest he’d have difficulties in the future if he voted no. The message, according to another wavering lawmaker’s aide, was clear: “We will run you out of town.”
Everyone knows that politics is “dirty business,” but the brand of politics played by the DeVos family in Michigan is a particularly brutal version of the game. We will see this DeVosean “mean streak” on display again later in the narrative.
2002: The Heritage Foundation “stealth” speech
One of my first encounters with the DeVos ideology of education was stumbling upon this video of a speech that Amway heir Dick DeVos (husband of Betsy, brother-in-law of Blackwater private mercenary army founder Erik Prince, Betsy’s brother), gave on December 3, 2002, at the Heritage Foundation (which is funded generously by the DeVos family foundations). The gist of this speech was Mr. DeVos’ argument that school privatization was an issue that was deeply divisive, and not at all popular with the public; so in order to get vouchers and privatization through the legislature a “stealth approach” was necessary: “We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities”.
This video is remarkable as documentation of the DeVos reform strategy, laid bare for all to see, and also serves as a sort of “privatization primer” for those interested in destroying public education:
- focus your work at the state level, as the DeVos family has done in Michigan, through “advocacy organizations” like the Great Lakes Education Project and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy–both are DeVos-controlled organizations; Betsy DeVos has been the Chair of the Board of GLEP, and the DeVoses are major funders—and founders—of both groups.
- make it clear to all involved that there will be “a political consequence for opposition” to the privatization agenda, and “a political reward for cooperation” (at 00:49 of the video)
- the craven political calculation that education choice will not be a battle that is “visible,” and that conservatives need to be “a little bit cautious” about “appropriating” choice as “their idea” (at 01:05 of the video). Mr. DeVos then goes on, astonishingly, to characterize race, class, and party affiliation as nothing more than hindrances to be dispatched with in gaining bipartisan support for their goal: “because we have here an issue that cuts in a very interesting way across our community and can cut, properly communicated, properly constructed, can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”
This “stealth” video is important for a number of reasons. First, the DeVos family is famously secretive–indeed, furtive–in their disdain for the public spotlight. They prefer to do their work, like most political operatives and lobbyists, in the background. This is one of the reasons that directly connecting any of the DeVos family members to specific policy actions can be so difficult; connecting the dots between a DeVos and a matter of public policy is like nailing Jello to the wall. There are always several layers of “plausible deniability” between Ms. or Mr. DeVos and their fingerprints on a policy move or piece of legislation. Having video evidence of Mr. DeVos spelling out his strategy for generating “bipartisan” support for an idea as politically toxic as school choice is incredibly illuminating, and exceedingly rare.
The video is also important as it demonstrates that Betsy and Dick DeVos have been developing this “long-game” strategy to privatize schools, destroy teacher unions, and eliminate regulations on education in MI for many years. This is not a new idea; it has all been carefully thought out, funded, and implemented. The seeds have been planted, watered, and fed for decades, and now the harvest is imminent.
2006: Church-State Boundaries
Dick DeVos is a proponent of Intelligent Design (ID), the “theory” that life is so complex that it must have been designed by an “intelligent being”, and has long pushed to get ID introduced into school curriculums:
“In 2006, when running for office, Dick DeVos said he wanted to see ID taught alongside evolution in science classes:
“I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design — that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory — that that theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less.
It’s worth mentioning that “many scientists” are not suggesting that ID is a viable scientific theory. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the theory of evolution is not up for debate:
…evolution itself has been so thoroughly tested that biologists are no longer examining whether evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Similarly, biologists no longer debate many of the mechanisms responsible for evolution. As with any other field of science, scientists continue to study the mechanisms of how the process of evolution operates. As new technologies make possible previously unimaginable observations and allow for new kinds of experiments, scientists continue to propose and examine the strength of evidence regarding the mechanisms for evolutionary change. But the existence of such questions neither reduces nor undermines the fact that evolution has occurred and continues to occur.
The DeVoses have never been shy about the role of faith in their lives, and in their philanthropy. Indeed, it forms the very core of the mission statement for the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation: “Our faith motivates our giving; it is integral to who we are and what we do.” There is no reason to think that Ms. DeVos won’t continue to find ways to merge her religious beliefs with her work as Secretary of Education, a conflict that will bear watching.
The DeVos family has also used their immense wealth to directly attack the church/state/student barrier:
“In Michigan, the DeVoses have sought to use their home state as a laboratory for their ideas. In Lansing, Michigan’s capital, they run an outfit called the Foundation for Traditional Values.
Although it sounds like a run-of-the-mill Religious Right group, the Foundation for Traditional Values does just one thing: sponsor an annual “Student Statesmanship Institute” designed to groom a new generation of Religious Right leaders in the political world.
“The dynamic teaching combined with real-world simulations equips teenagers to distinguish between secular and Biblical approaches to life and motivates them to shine for Christ in their generation without compromising their values,” boasts the Institute’s Web site.
According to the Institute, America was founded on “Christian thought” but has drifted from those ideals. The group aims to “restore” these values by immersing young people in week-long programs that focus on things like mock legislatures and media training.”
“Within sight of the U.S. Capitol sits the Heritage Foundation, a sprawling right-wing enterprise so large its building takes up half of a city block. With an annual budget topping $70 million, the relentlessly pro-voucher Heritage Foundation enjoys significant influence with top GOP leaders.
The Heritage Foundation also has strong ties to the Religious Right. It was founded (in part with DeVos money) by the late Paul Weyrich, one of the early gurus of the Religious Right, and has cosponsored the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit” in Washington. Although most of the Summit focuses on issues like abortion restrictions, church politicking and opposition to gay rights, in recent years there have been more sessions on economic issues, health care and government spending.”
Closer to home for the DeVoses it’s easy to find examples of the church-state boundary being blurred by the state’s charter schools. In Detroit, the Cornerstone School has been operating in a less than transparent fashion for years. Nick Krieger recently wrote an excellent review on how Cornerstone’s leader has been skirting the public/religious line for many years:
Try a Google search for “Cornerstone Schools Detroit” sometime. Then check out the results. Are you looking at the website for Cornerstone’s private, religious schools? Or are you on the website for its charter schools? Can you tell?
Sure, you’ll notice that Cornerstone’s religious schools are headquartered at 6861 Nevada on Detroit’s east side. By contrast, Cornerstone’s charter schools are based at a location in Royal Oak. The private schools and charter schools have different telephone numbers, and their websites list different media contacts.
But they also share many similarities. The boards of directors have members in common, including Durant, Oakland Circuit Judge Michael Warren, and attorney John R. Nicholson. Both websites state, “We see transformed lives, for good; and a new city for all.” And both sites reference Cornerstone’s “Christ-centered” beginnings.
Christ-centered? Yes. You read that correctly. Unlike Cornerstone’s private schools website, the charter schools site does not explicitly mention “Jesus.” Nevertheless, the religious undertones are present if you know where to look. Under “The Cornerstone Charter Schools Story,” beneath the subtitle “Read More About Our History,” the website specifically recounts how Cardinal Adam Maida once “asked the community to help build cornerstones for the city,” and makes clear that Cornerstone’s charters grew out of “a Christ-centered schooling alternative . . . .”
With so much overlap between Cornerstone’s private and charter schools, one has to wonder whether the charter schools are simply an alter ego for the private schools. They certainly appear to be two sides of the same coin. Do they have separate identities? Or are they so closely related that they make up a single unit? One founder. Common directors. The free transfer of employees between the two. Similar websites. Identical mission statements. These factors strongly suggest a unity of purpose, and provide at least some evidence that one entity is a mere instrumentality of the other.
Eclectablog has also written about Pasquale Battaglia and his Classical Academy in Brighton, which was simply a rebranding of his previous attempts at starting a private religious school and getting state funding.
So there has been a fair amount of effort, and some success, in setting up religious schools as charters in the state. And while it’s difficult to “connect the dots” between Betsy DeVos and any of these examples, it’s hard to avoid the notion that the DeVos family is supportive of these efforts; a trend that I suspect will only accelerate with Betsy in charge in Washington.
But here’s the real issue with the connections between Betsy DeVos, church-state separation, and charter schools: I think that linking Ms. DeVos to charters is actually missing the mark.
To put it bluntly, I don’t believe that Betsy DeVos actually cares about charter schools at all. After all, charters are still–nominally–public institutions, which represent something “unwholesome” or even “unclean” to her Calvinist/Dominionist sensibilities (“Dominionism is the belief that Christians must take control over societal and government institutions”).
Remember, this is a person who never attended a public school, never earned a degree in education, never taught, homeschooled her children for a couple of years, then sent them to private Christian schools even though the family lived in a community with excellent public schools.
All of those choices, of course, are her right. However, the Secretary of Education should not be a person who never attended a public school, never taught, and never sent her own children to a public school. The DeVos’ have every right to send their children to whatever school they choose—but they do not have the right to make the rest of us pay for that choice
What the DeVos family and foundations have really been pushing is a move to redirect public funding to religious and private schools—and for this, they need vouchers.
2013: The “Skunk Works”
Details emerged in Lansing, Michigan’s capitol, in April of 2013 of a secretive, off-the-books work group that had been tasked with developing a system of “low cost schools,” aided by the extensive use of technology (to greatly reduce the need for teachers), and that would clear the way for the eventual acceptance of a “voucher work around”:
“Under the plan, tuition would reportedly be paid for with a “Michigan Education Card,” and extra money could be used by students for activities like online courses or music lessons. The group, which has been meeting since December, includes charter school backers, personnel from information technology companies and several members of Snyder’s staff, who used private emails to communicate, according to records acquired by the newspaper. According to the News, the group had also spoken with Bay Mills Community College about establishing a technology-centered charter school.
The group includes employees from the software and tech companies Vectorform in Royal Oak, InfoReady in Ann Arbor and Billhighway in Troy.”
As mentioned previously, tying Betsy DeVos directly to the Skunk Works project, or any other specific initiative, can be difficult. She doesn’t speak often on the record, and prefers to remain a rather shadowy figure, preferring to do her work behind the scenes. But there is little doubt that Ms. DeVos is involved with nearly every education reform-related plan in the state. She’s Michigan’s “Puppet Master”, pulling the strings on the whole agenda…and funding most of it.
There were, however, tell-tale fingerprints on the Skunk Works project that suggest a DeVos connection:
- The Skunk Works “team” was led by David Behen, Gov. Rick Snyder’s Chief Information Officer, and included Tim Cook from the Huizenga Group in Grand Rapids.
- The Huizenga Group is connected to JC Huizenga, who owns National Heritage Academies, the largest charter school management company in Michigan.
- JC Huizenga was on the board of TEACH Michigan in the 1990s.
- TEACH Michigan was formed to change education law in the state of Michigan in the late 1980s, and was organized and operated by the Michigan Family Forum, the state branch of Focus on the Family, funded by the DeVos and Prince family foundations.
Connecting the dots in the Skunk Works project is a little like playing the DeVos version of “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon”—everything in Michigan’s education reform establishment is linked to the DeVos family…sooner or later.
2016: The Detroit Public Schools “Turnaround”
After years of mismanagement by the Snyder administration, the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools could no longer be ignored, and state lawmakers decided that drastic measures needed to be taken.
A solution that included a Detroit Education Commission with authority to open and close charters was approved in the state Senate, but was then voted down in the House, due almost entirely to DeVos-applied pressure:
At one point, Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) posted a picture on Facebook of [GLEP’s Gary) Naeyaert watching the legislative action from the House gallery. Yanez’s post said, “The masters watch their minions from the gallery making sure they follow their orders on #DPS bill$.”
Asked about the post this week, Yanez said, “Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist or maybe I just see what’s placed in front of me.”
“When I step out in the hallway and I see the people from GLEP and the people from the charter schools … I know why they’re there,” he added. “I think it’s pretty clear.”
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.”
Edushyster provides this analysis:
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.
What’s important to note here is not just that Betsy DeVos “got her way” in these negotiations—she made sure to include a special punishment for Detroit Public School teachers who came forward as “whistle blowers” to point out the dangerous working conditions in the schools.
And unlike the majority of state legislators at the beginning of these negotiations who believed that Detroit’s schools–and students–were worth saving, Ms. DeVos took the opportunity last February to make a rare public statement, weighing in with her own rather dystopian “take” on the situation in Detroit:
While the state Legislature continues to debate whether Michigan taxpayers should fund a $715 million bailout of the Detroit Public Schools, we must acknowledge the simple fact that DPS has failed academically and financially – for decades. We need to retire DPS and provide new and better education options that focus on Detroit schoolchildren.
Rather than create a new traditional school district to replace the failed DPS, we should liberate all students from this woefully under-performing district model and provide in its place a system of schools where performance and competition create high-quality opportunities for kids. We shouldn’t create a new district that is nothing more than a DPS retread. Absent urgent and serious reforms, the new district will only continue the downward spiral of poor academic performance, declining enrollment and financial instability we’ve seen for decades from DPS.
Absent from Ms. DeVos’ “analysis” here is any “acknowledgement” that DPS’s “failures” were a “manufactured crisis” created by the rotating parade of incompetent Emergency Managers installed by Gov. Snyder, the systematic defunding of DPS by a compliant Republican state legislature, and the virtual explosion of predatory charter schools in the city made possible by the near total lack of accountability or regulations that characterizes Michigan’s charter industry.
Only a “reformer” obsessed with instituting an unconstitutional school choice agenda could turn a blind eye to the plight of thousands of her state’s most vulnerable children and teachers, and call for dissolving a once great city school system in favor of of a dangerously disorganized grab bag of privately-(mis)managed charter, private, and religious schools, closing and opening at the whim of their investors, wreaking havoc on the lives of the city’s inhabitants.
The barely disguised scorn and contempt Ms. DeVos has for Detroit’s children and families is clearly discernible in the vocabulary she uses in her diatribe: “bailout”, “retire,” “retread,” “aggressive intervention,” “closure.”
There is a term for a person brought in to an organization to perform underhanded, controversial, or unscrupulous tasks, like mass firings and company closings: this person is known as a “hatchet man”.
Betsy DeVos is nothing more than Donald Trump’s “hatchet man,” tapped for no other purpose than to destroy our public schools, de-professionalize the teaching profession, and privatize what’s left.
There is room for vigorous debate and competing ideas in all areas of public life, including public education. Serious persons might disagree on the best ways to accomplish various pedagogical ends, could debate the merits of “flipped classrooms” and “authentic assessment,” and may argue about what constitutes the most effective ways to evaluate teacher quality.
But tapping a person whose long public record of words and actions betrays an obvious anti-public education mindset to lead the nation’s public education system is an act of clear hostility and aggression that must be forcefully resisted.
Betsy DeVos has been wrong for Michigan’s schools, and is wrong for Secretary of Education.
Note: to listen to a podcast of the issues discussed in this timeline, click here or scroll to the bottom of this post.