Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
I first laid eyes upon Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, at television journalist Campbell Brown’s forum for GOP presidential contenders. It was the summer of 2015, back when Trump was little more than a punchline, and Jeb Bush, despite drooping in the August heat that day, still seemed like the real contender. Because the event wasn’t an official debate, Bush, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, et al, couldn’t appear on stage together—which meant that Brown asked the same questions of each, and got similar nonanswers, in an endless conversational format.
And then suddenly there was Betsy DeVos, a Brown chum, holding forth about an education “moonshot.” It wasn’t what she said that interested me so much as what she represented. Could the education reform coalition’s major selling point, its bipartisan appeal, really stretch to incorporate DeVos’s extreme rightwing views? Here is someone so extreme that she routinely drops the word “government” in front of “public school” (as if government had no business meddling in education). Wouldn’t it be better for her to remain in the favored domain of the DeVos family, the shadows, or at least in Michigan?
Privately, fans of charter schools and school choice express dismay over Trump’s choice of DeVos for Secretary of Education. It’s not just her far-right views. It is the outsized role she has played in shaping Detroit as an education laboratory in which an out-of-control lab fire now burns.
To understand the damage DeVos has done in Detroit, it helps to have a bit of historical context. We are so used to thinking of Detroit as America’s urban hell hole that it can be hard to comprehend the optimism that took hold there two years ago as the city was coming out of bankruptcy. Finally, it seemed as though the Motor City might be on the cusp of a real revival. And not the kind of comeback driven by hipsters opening cupcake shops or the rebranded subsistence farming known as “urban gardening,” but a real renaissance where middle-class residents return to Detroit.
It was out of this spirit of hopefulness that the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren emerged back in 2014. And it was a real coalition. American Federation of Teachers was there, but so were pro-charter groups, along with members of the corporate and civic elite. People who’d been at deep odds, if not at war, had come together around a single, shared point of agreement: If Detroit doesn’t have some way to oversee its schools—both what remains of the district schools and the fast-growing, completely unregulated charter sector—the city can forget about the future. Bankrolled by a local philanthropy, the Skillman Foundation, the coalition had the wind at its back and the political acumen necessary to get a bill through the state senate. Even the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, was on board.
But the feel-good story ended abruptly last summer when it ran into a wall of GOP opposition. Except that “wall” and “opposition” make it sound as though there was a whole bunch of people involved in the kneecapping that went down. There was just one couple: Betsy and Dick DeVos, the multibillionaire heirs to the Amway fortune.
The bill that ultimately passed, with the help of $1.45 million from the DeVoses in two months, did 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 knife, the legislation that emerged lets uncertified teachers teach in Detroit, something not allowed anywhere else in Michigan. Meanwhile, teachers who engage in “sickouts,” the protests that drew national attention to the appalling conditions in the city’s schools, will be subject to harsh new punishments.
There is a queasy, racialized undertone to much of the education reform debate, with its constant implication that students of color fare best in schools over which their communities have little say. In Michigan, though, that argument has been taken by reform advocates, Betsy DeVos chief among them, to its extreme conclusion.
The official message of DeVos’s organization, the Great Lakes Education Project, during last summer’s legislative battle was that dissolving the Detroit Public Schools would “protect kids and empower parents.” But it was hard to miss what the rightwing organization really meant: Detroit is a tax-hoovering abyss whose residents are too corrupt and incompetent to oversee their own schools.
When the Republican Party in Michigan swept all three branches of government in 2010, plans and schemes that the DeVos family and its conservative allies had been quietly hashing out for years were suddenly on the desk of the new governor, who signed them into law. Right-to-work passed, words that still hurt to type if you know even a little about Michigan’s role as the birthplace of the industrial labor movement. The cap on the number of charter schools got another hike, on its way to being eliminated completely. And the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act (Act 4) was rammed through, allowing the governor to appoint an emergency manager to assume control of school districts and municipalities in financial distress.
There's a queasy, racialized undertone to much of the education reform debate, with its constant implication that students of color fare best in schools over which their communities have little say.
You’ve heard about Detroit, and Flint, with its poisoned water, but there are other, less well-known cases of communities destroyed by rampant privatization—including Benton Harbor, Muskegon, and Highland Park, which at last count was down to a single public school. Within a few years of Public Act 4’s enactment, half of Michigan’s black population was living under the control of emergency managers who could rip up labor contracts, open and close schools, and sell off public assets, with no public input whatsoever.
“The municipalities and school districts that have been taken over are predominantly African American and poor,” says David Arsen, an economist at Michigan State University. “The optics are not good, especially in the context of the long civil rights struggle for voting rights.”
As Arsen and a team of researchers recently documented, the school districts that have fallen into financial distress have something else in common besides demographics: They have lots and lots of charter schools. And the greater the number of charter schools, the higher the adverse impact on district finances, as districts are confronted with plummeting student enrollment and a rising population of students in need of special education services.
Put in nonacademic terms, the state’s push to expand charter schools in Michigan’s urban districts is creating problems that the state is then stepping in to solve—by expanding charter schools. Says Arsen: “In most of the districts the state has taken over, very substantial portions of students are now attending charter schools.”
In a scathing editorial published late last year, the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press took issue with Betsy DeVos’s claim to be an advocate for children. She is first and foremost a lobbyist, wrote Stephen Henderson: “someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them.” The editorial indicted DeVos for pushing charter schools while at the same time working to shield charters from public accountability.
But even Henderson’s sweeping condemnation failed to capture the extent of DeVos’s reach. Through her organization, the American Federation for Children, she is increasingly bringing her lobbying operation to states beyond Michigan. In Wisconsin alone, the AFC has spent more than $5 million since 2010, mostly to support Governor Scott Walker and other Republican candidates.
In a revealing op-ed written by DeVos in 1997 for the Washington, D.C., magazine Roll Call, she bragged that she knew a little something about soft money because her family was the “largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party.” DeVos also announced that she was through taking offense at suggestions that her family was buying influence. “Now I simply concede the point. . . . We do expect some things in return.”
Among the billionaire family’s expectations in return for its investment in Republican candidates is a “conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues.” DeVos meant her remarks to be tongue-in-cheek, a snide poke at her critics on the left. But two decades later, with the family’s influence steadily spreading through a web of dark money PACS, there’s little to laugh about.
Betsy DeVos with Donald Trump and Mike Pence at Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, New Jersey, November 2016.
DeVos’s advocacy efforts go well beyond the big-money push for vouchers and school privatization for which she’s known. While press reports have mentioned that DeVos and her family have a long history of supporting anti-gay causes, missing from those accounts is the depth and ferocity of their crusade.
Betsy DeVos’s family of origin, the Princes, provided the seed money that was used to create the virulently anti-gay Family Research Council. Both the Princes and the DeVoses ponied up the funds for the group to establish its main office in Washington, D.C., along with a satellite office in the DeVoses’ hometown of Holland, Michigan. And while DeVos and her husband are reported to have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-gay organizations, including the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, the real action is at Betsy DeVos’s own family’s foundation, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. In 2015 alone, the foundation gave $700,000 to the Family Research Council for operating support, along with another $500,000 to Focus on the Family. Betsy DeVos is a vice president of the foundation, as is her brother Erik, founder of the private security contractor Blackwater USA.
The terrifying thing about the dawning of the Trumpian era isn’t just the specific awfulness of Trump’s policies. It’s that he is what the long gamers think of as “moldable clay”—receptive to whatever plots and plans they’ve spent years dreaming up. In Michigan, the long game has long been about making over the state’s schools. This involves breaking up the government monopoly over education and getting rid of that pesky prohibition that keeps public monies from following kids to private schools, especially private schools of the religious variety. In 2000, the DeVoses spent $5.6 million in an unsuccessful effort to amend the Michigan constitution to allow school vouchers. While voters overwhelmingly defeated the measure, the DeVoses’ dedication to the cause has only grown more fervent.
When Detroit-based writer Allie Gross set out this summer to document the long history of the DeVos family’s efforts to remake Detroit’s schools, she dug up an archival piece that a reporter at her paper, the Metro Times, had written in 1996. Gross’s predecessor described a “relentless attack” on Michigan’s public education system, and a “Trojan horse” meant to blur the distinction between public and private schools, in order to steer public funds to parochial schools. And so charter schools in Michigan were born, pushed by a small group of billionaire families, including the DeVoses and Princes, along with school choice advocates like Richard McLellan, a close DeVos confederate.
I came in contact with McLellan in the unlikeliest of ways: He sent me fan mail in response to a blog post I wrote, lampooning an ill-fated proposal he’d written called the “Mega School Choice” bill. I referred to McLellan’s plan as “Reform Turducken”: one privatization scheme stuffed inside another. “One of the better attacks on the school proposals,” McLellan wrote to me in an email on Christmas night, 2012. I imagined him sitting alone in the deep hush of a cavernous house, a tumbler of single malt scotch at the ready, an image that was not unpleasing. When an enterprising blogger turned up some thirty-five-year-old notes bearing McLellan’s name, laying out a plan to discredit the public schools, I asked him if he’d be willing to do an interview with me.
We talked on the phone for an hour and a half—by far the strangest interview I’ve ever done. I told him that as a participant observer in the great unwinding of public education, it was both heartening and horrifying to come across a document that seemed to confirm my worst imaginings.
McLellan, for his part, mostly regaled me with descriptions of some of the many ideas he’s come up with over the years to disrupt the sclerotic workings of Michigan’s schools. When Michigan got a new Republican governor with no specific policies to put forward, he turned to McLellan for ideas. “I’ve thought about a lot of these things for a long time,” McLellan told me. And when the governor asked him to write some legislation, he had an entire constellation of proposals ready to go, all working toward a single long-term agenda. He remembers thinking, “I can throw in a lot of the schemes that we’ve talked about for the last twenty years.”
Days after Trump announced his choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, her husband did a radio interview in which he noted that his wife had never met Trump prior to the meeting that led to her selection. DeVos attended the Republican convention as a delegate for John Kasich and pointedly remained in her seat while all around the crowd rose to applaud the nominee. And yet Trump, infamously thin-skinned, was able to overlook this slight, thanks to the impressiveness of DeVos’s credentials. When he made the news of her choice public, he described DeVos as a “brilliant and passionate education advocate” who would “break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back.”
What’s missing from this creation myth is the connection between DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence, who has been described by journalist Jeremy Scahill as the “most powerful Christian supremacist in U.S. history.” If Trump didn’t know DeVos, Mike Pence certainly did.
DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, has been a close ally of Pence for years, and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Pence, including to his PAC: Principles Exalt a Nation. Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos’s organization, the American Federation for Children, poured $1.3 million into Pence’s successful effort to dramatically expand Indiana’s voucher program. Today Hoosiers send more than $135 million in taxpayer money to private schools, almost all of which are religious, and Indiana is being held up as a model of just the sort of voucher program that DeVos will likely try to expand across the country.
In 2002, DeVos told a gathering of wealthy Christians that she saw her work in education reform as akin to a biblical battlefield. Vouchers and school choice, she said, were a vehicle for “expanding God’s kingdom.” That she shares that vision with Vice President Pence is something that should terrify anyone who is concerned for the future of public education.
Jennifer Berkshire is a Progressive Education Fellow and writes the EduShyster blog.