On behalf of the people of Michigan, I apologize… Not only were we one of three states credited with making Donald Trump, the least qualified presidential candidate in American history, our President-elect, but, as it turns out, we might also be responsible for ending public education as we know it. You see, we, the people of Michigan, had a chance to stop Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos from dismantling our public schools, but we didn’t do it. And, now, unless something unexpected happens, it looks as though she’s going to be replicating the failed policies that she championed in Michigan across the entire nation as our next Secretary of Education.
While DeVos has absolutely no qualifications for the job, she does have money, and she’s proven again and again that she’ll use it to get what she wants. As she said in a 1997 op-ed for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, “My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee.” She then when on to add, “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.” And, with this as her objective, DeVos, with her $5.1 billion net worth behind her, has wreaked havoc in Michigan, funding successful legislative efforts to efforts to, among other things, “restore religious freedom” by keeping gay couples from adopting and stop Michigan cities from passing living wage ordinances. But her real passion is in the realm of education reform, where she’s worked tirelessly to ensure that Michigan is the most anti-public education state in the union, funding campaigns to remove all caps on charter schools, while, at the same time, guaranteeing virtually no oversight.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said of DeVos yesterday: “Her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers – which take away funding and local control from our public schools – to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. These schemes do nothing to help our most vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps.”
“She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education,” Eskelsen García went on to say. “By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities.”
And, for what it’s worth, Eskelsen García isn’t employing hyperbole here. Those of us who live in Michigan have seen it play out firsthand. We’ve seen the ubiquitous billboards for fly-by-night virtual charters offering to educate our kids over the internet. [They give kids laptops and access to an online platform, and just collect the money from the state that would have otherwise directed to a public school.] And we’ve seen our school districts closing once vital neighborhood schools right and left due to the unchecked proliferation of charter schools and a “schools of choice” system that pits neighboring districts against one another, fighting over those “good” students who don’t require things like special education, which can be costly.
They’ve been assuring us for the past 20 years that this unfettered competition will yield better opportunities for our students, but the results just don’t bear that out. [More on that in a minute.] I’d argue, however, that better schools were never the end goal. I think, from day one, the real objective has always been to kill the teachers unions, while, at the same time, funneling public money into the hands of private corporations, which, in turn, contribute to conservative causes and legislators. And, it’s working. While I don’t have current data, between 2012 and 2015, Michigan’s two teachers unions, the MEA and the AFT, lost almost 28,000 members. And, in large part that’s due to the overwhelming growth of the charter school industry, which, according to the Detroit Free Press, “Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into.”  More importantly, though, these programs pushed by DeVos and others, just aren’t working for kids.
A recent investigation by the Detroit Free Press, which looked at two decades of charter school records and data from across Michigan, found: “Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them. And a record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies that rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws. Michigan leads the nation in schools run by for-profits.” And much of the blame lies with DeVos, who not only led, but funded, the charge.
Here, from Chalkbeat, is a great example of DeVos in action: “When Michigan lawmakers this year were considering a measure that would have added oversight for charter schools in Detroit, members of the DeVos family poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers — an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislation.”
And, that, my friends, is the kind of maneuvering on behalf of the for-profit charter industry that you can expect to see happening across the United States, assuming DeVos is confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of Education… I’m not sure what she paid for cabinet post, but you can be damn sure she’s going to see a return on that investment.
[If I had to guess, I’d say that, in return for the cabinet position, DeVos offered to supply Amway lightbulbs and laundry detergent to all of Trump’s properties at a deep discount. I hope someone asks when she goes before the Senate for her confirmation hearing.]
For what it’s worth, DeVos wasn’t always a fan of Trump’s. “(He) does not represent the Republican Party,” she said of Trump prior to the election, calling him an “interloper.” I guess her opinion of him changed, however, when he won, opening up an opportunity for her to bring her crusade to the entire nation.
So, if you ever looked at Michigan and thought, “How in the hell can people live in a state where their leaders are actually arguing in court that literacy isn’t a fundamental right under the Constitution?”, it’s headed your way. Consider yourselves warned.
And, for what it’s worth, the ultimate objective for some in the DeVos camp may be even darker than just ending public education in America as we know it. It’s being reported today that the Acton Institute, a right wing organization funded by DeVos, is pro-child labor. [On their site, they’ve referred to child labor as, “a gift our kids can handle.”] Just a few weeks ago, the organization posted an essay to their blog which included the following. “Let us not just teach our children to play hard and study well, shuffling them through a long line of hobbies and electives and educational activities,” the piece said. “A long day’s work and a load of sweat have plenty to teach as well.”
I should point out that there’s no evidence that I’m aware of that would indicate DeVos wants to dismantle child labor laws, or put children to work inside the light bulb factories that power her family’s lucrative pyramid scheme. I do think, however, it’s important at times like these to remember that this is where the path we’re on leads. We don’t talk about it a lot, but, not too long ago, we actually had American children working in mines and textile plants, and there’s no reason to think that it couldn’t happen again. It’s also important to remember that it’s not just whacky right wing think tank employees who are musing about the prospect of bringing children back into the workforce. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has called our current child protection laws “truly stupid,” and, not too long ago, in Maine, Republicans passed something called The Act to Enhance Access to the Workplace for Minors, which sought to roll back some of those very child labor laws Gingrich objected to. So, yes, feel free to laugh off the suggestion that DeVos has been tied to an organization calling for the eradication of child labor laws, but do so at your own peril. As we’ve seen in the past, this is exactly what unfettered capitalism leads to… It won’t be enough to just end the minimum wage. They’ll eventually want our kids.
Leaving child labor aside, DeVos, by almost any objective criteria, is a terrible choice for Secretary of Education. Not only has every initiative that she’s backed in Michigan hurt kids, but she’s never worked in education, which, one would think, would be a prerequisite for Secretary of Education. Not only has she never taught, or run a school, she’s never even had a child in public school. [Her children attended Grand Rapids Christian.]
But enough of what I think. Here are a few thoughts from other people who are smarter than me about the DeVos appointment.
New York Times:
…As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, she is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country. At least some of the other candidates for education secretary, like Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, led reforms that were accompanied by improved student results.
Consider this: Detroit is one of many cities in the country that participates in an objective and rigorous test of student academic skills, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The other cities participating in the urban version of this test, including Baltimore, Cleveland and Memphis, are widely considered to be among the lowest-performing school districts in the country.
Detroit is not only the lowest in this group of lowest-performing districts on the math and reading scores, it is the lowest by far. One well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools. The situation is so bad that national philanthropists interested in school reform refuse to work in Detroit. As someone who has studied the city’s schools and used to work there, I am saddened by all this.
The situation is not entirely Ms. DeVos’s fault, of course, but she is widely seen as the main driver of the entire state’s school overhaul. She devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West. It’s hardly a surprise that the system, which has almost no oversight, has failed. Schools there can do poorly and still continue to enroll students. Also, after more than a decade of Ms. DeVos’s getting her way on a host of statewide education policies, Michigan has the dubious distinction of being one of five states with declining reading scores…
We strongly urge Congress to scrutinize the record of Betsy DeVos, who has been a staunch proponent of school vouchers, a misguided idea that diverts taxpayer dollars into private and parochial schools and perverts the bedrock American value of separation of church and state. She and her husband served as the primary fundraisers and engine for a Michigan ballot initiative –Kids First! Yes! Coalition that voters soundly rejected in 2000.
She has ardently supported the unlimited, unregulated growth of charter schools in Michigan, elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools. She’s done this despite overwhelming evidence that proves that charters do no better at educating children than traditional public schools and serve only to exacerbate funding problems for cash-strapped public districts. We believe that all children have a right to a quality public education, and we fear that Betsy DeVos’ relentless advocacy of charter schools and vouchers betrays these principles.
Brandon Dillon, Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party:
Donald Trump could not have made a more dangerous and ill-advised pick for his Secretary of Education than billionaire charter school advocate and anti-public education activist Betsy DeVos… Here is someone, in Betsy DeVos, who has made it her life’s work to channel her family’s massive wealth toward destroying Michigan’s public education system, and now she’s about to oversee the policy and direction of education for the entire United States. She has consistently encouraged and enabled attacks on public school teachers and our children’s right to a quality public education, to line the pockets of corporate charter school investors and make her family’s extremely conservative views part of a mainstream curriculum…
Unlike others Trump was reportedly considering for the post, including education reform advocate Michelle Rhee and former state superintendents from Indiana and Florida, DeVos has never been formally involved with public education. She hasn’t been a teacher or principal, or run a school district or state education agency. She’s never even taken a public position on Common Core, the education standards that Trump railed against on the campaign trail.
But DeVos has a long history of activism on one issue: school choice — a term that refers to both school vouchers, which allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private school, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run…
And DeVos is a voucher advocate first and foremost, advocating both for vouchers for children and for tax credits to businesses that give money to private school scholarship funds. She and her husband founded All Children Matter, a political action committee that supports school vouchers and private school scholarships, and she chairs the American Federation for Children, which advocates for the same issues.
Voucher programs, though, have been established at the state level — most education funding in the US is state and local, and despite efforts from congressional Republicans, Congress has never instituted a national school voucher program. Trump has vowed to try, and his nomination of DeVos suggests that he’s serious.
Trump’s plan for his first 100 days includes the creation of a $20 billion school choice program. The money — which is more than the Education Department currently spends on supporting K-12 education for poor students, and which Trump says would be found by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars,” meaning budget cuts elsewhere — would go to states with laws that agree to let the money follow students to schools of their choice.
In practice, this would mean a giant influx of federal money into private schools, which would be tied to students. So if a student chose to attend a public school, the public school would get the money; if she went to a private school, the private school would benefit…
…In 2000, Betsy and Dick DeVos funded an unsuccessful statewide ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution to allow tax dollars to be used for private school tuition through education vouchers. They have since advocated for school vouchers in other states.
In 2012, Dick DeVos led the charge in getting the Legislature to make Michigan a right-to-work state, eliminating work rules that made financial support of unions a condition of employment for teachers in public schools.
The DeVoses founded their own charter high school, the West Michigan Aviation Academy, located on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.
Gov. Rick Snyder weighed in Wednesday in a statement, saying Betsy DeVos “will mean great things for Michigan.”
“Betsy’s appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels in Washington,” Snyder said…
So, I hope you’re ready, America. Betsy DeVos and her “no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents” is coming your way. And, soon, you too will know what it’s like to see your public education infrastructure crumble around you, as charter schools, unencumbered by oversight, pop up on every corner, dragging down your childhood literacy rates and weakening your communities, all while your tax dollars move out of state, and into the pockets of corporate shareholders… And, for what it’s worth, I wasn’t kidding about literacy rates dropping precipitously. In 2003, Michigan was 28th among the states when it came to fourth-grade reading achievement. By 205, we’d dropped to 41st. [Remember, according to the folks in Lansing literacy isn’t a fundamental right.]
And, for what it’s worth, I do feel guilty about not having done more to stop DeVos when we had a chance, or Governor Engler, for that matter, back when all of this started in Michigan. We had our opportunities. We allowed things to happen, though. And, over time, they added up, bring us to where we are today, staring hopelessly into the abyss. But I guess that’s how things like this always come about. You fight for a while, but you eventually let your guard down. And, when you do, people with power, time and money are ready to take advantage. And you don’t realize the enormity of what’s happening until it’s too late. So, now, I’m afraid, because we allowed Michigan to fall, the rest of the country, under the direction of Betsy DeVos, is likely going to follow suit… More charters. Less oversight. More separation between those who have the economic means to put their kids in private schools and those who don’t. And I can’t help but think it’ll be devastating to the very fabric of our society… What does society look like, I wonder, when a teacher’s salary is no longer enough to support a family? Do our best and brightest continue to go into the profession? And what becomes of our neighborhoods without local schools to tie people of different faiths, races and classes together? And what becomes of kids who move from K to 12 without ever engaging with people from outside their same socio-economic group? What kid aspires to be a doctor if none of his friends have parents who are doctors? And who fights to protect the rights of Muslims if they’ve never gotten to know one, perhaps through the PTA? And how are we ever going to solve issues like global climate change if we don’t prepare the next generation for the fight? And how do we stop this process that we’re caught up in, when we’re all just struggling to stay afloat? Who has the time and energy, after fighting to find a good educational situations for our own kids, to worry about everyone else?
It’s almost too overwhelming to even think about, but we need to get beyond that paralysis. We need to not only resist on behalf of our future generations, but we need to reclaim what’s already been lost. It’s not enough to stop Trump and DeVos, we need to invest even more in public education, ensuring that our kids grow up with the intelligence not to repeat our mistakes, and the skills necessary to repair the damage that we’ve done. We’ve already given them a world of shit… the least we can do is educate them so that they have a fighting chance.