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Betsy DeVos’ Educational Experiments on Black Children In Michigan Should Worry Us All

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education by the narrowest of margins in a historic event the Vice President was called to the Senate to cast the tiebreaking vote to confirm a presidential Cabinet position.

The next day, DeVos addressed employees at the Department of Education and cracked a smile as she humorously made reference to her Senate testimony regarding the need for guns in school because of the dangers schools face from roaming grizzly bears.

The smile was reminiscent of the smile she offered throughout her confirmation hearing during testimony that included:

  • Misconstruing the educational debate around proficiency vs. growth as measurements of student achievement
  • Providing alternative facts (aka lying) when asked whether she was on the board of a family foundation that funded anti-LGBT groups
  • Failing to understand that her agency’s role in enforcing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to ensure disabled children have a “free appropriate public education” and that it is more than just a quaint notion that states can choose to ignore if they like
  • Refusing to clarify if she would enforce the 2011 Title IX Guidance, which gives clear direction and obligations on how campus administrators should proceed in handling sexual assault cases on campus.

Yet through it all, she just continued to smile. It may have led an observer to think, “She’s pretty clueless, but perhaps she’ll be harmless.” DeVos, however, has a history in Michigan of meddling in the public school system. She has used her substantial resources to push for a for-profit, charter-based school system. DeVos has literally remade the Michigan and Detroit school system in her own image, with Black schoolchildren at the center of the debate — some would say experiment — on whether charter schools produce better outcomes for children.

DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos, Jr., are the most powerful Republicans in Michigan. Richard is an heir to the Amway fortune and Betsy DeVos’ father owned a company worth roughly $1 billion. DeVos has used her wealth to create advocacy groups dedicated to expanding charter schools and school choice throughout Michigan. Those efforts allowed the Trump administration to paint her as a philanthropist with a deep commitment to children.

DeVos’ donations, or investments, in education have been done with a distinct strategy in mind of advocating for an all-charter school system, skewed toward a for-profit model. Her strategy has even polarized other charter school advocates, who either kept their distance or directly opposed DeVos. Eli Broad, a billionaire philanthropist who has spent more than $140 million in support of charter schools, expressed his strong opposition to DeVos’ Secretary of Education nomination.

DeVos’ crusade in support of charter schools is in no way pedagogical; instead, it is purely ideological. That is to say, her obsession is not based on educational theories of how children learn nor is it based on research and data. To the contrary, her views on education are based on a philosophy of complete faith in free markets, a belief that with government out of the way, parents will find the good schools that are being innovative and effective.  Let the market do what it does and whoever wins, wins, and whoever loses, loses.

As a function of her belief system, ever since 1994 when she and her family helped create the law that started Michigan’s charter schools, DeVos has blocked any efforts to incorporate accountability into the charter school process. In 2011, she lobbied successfully to lift the cap on the number of charter schools while simultaneously blocking a provision to keep failing schools from expanding.

In 2016, DeVos and her family essentially paid Republican lawmakers to kill a bill that would have required greater oversight of charter schools. The bill would have created standards for opening such schools and for dealing with poor-performing charter schools (either closing them or simply keeping them from expanding). In a two-month period following the vote, the DeVos family distributed $1.45 million to the Republican Party and individual campaigns.

The results of their lobbying and funding for the privatization of education has created a new education paradigm in Michigan where approximately 80 percent of the state’s charter schools are for-profit, far higher than any other state. Even advocates who favor charter schools generally favor the nonprofit model or entities that might prioritize quality education over profit. Some states have banned for-profit charters, but Michigan because of the work of DeVos, welcomes them with open arms.

In Detroit, DeVos-sponsored policies have led to the placement of 79 percent of the state’s charter schools, a greater proportion of charters than any city in the country except New Orleans. Given that more than 80 percent of Detroit’s population is Black, DeVos and her family have essentially been running a 20-year experiment with Black children serving as the guinea pigs.

The call for charter schools with the ability for a statewide voucher system is the holy grail of DeVos’ education policy objectives. Vouchers would allow for massive amounts of public funding to be redirected toward private schools, including religious schools, which, for the DeVos family, essentially means private Christian schools. The family sees vouchers as a means to expand conservative Christian principles throughout the state.

Education reform is usually based on the rhetoric that students will achieve better results. The outcomes have not been impressive. Michigan’s charter schools consistently “have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average.”

Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Free Press, who has been reporting on DeVos and the education system for a number of years, makes the following assessment of the 20-year history of charter schools in Detroit: “[They] have simply created a second, privately managed failing system. Yes, there are high-performing outliers — a little more than 10 percent of the charter schools perform in the top tier. But in Detroit, the best schools are as likely to be traditional public schools.”

A 2016 study by The Center for Michigan found that the state’s charter and school choice policies have led to an increase in school segregation. Close to 70 percent of the state’s relocated “choice students” changed enrollment to a less-diverse district, a number largely driven by white students transferring to schools with larger white enrollment. This means that additional resources through family donations will also leave with those children.

DeVos is such a zealot advocate for privatizing schools who, even in the face of negative results,uses her resources to prevent accountability, allowing (even facilitating) poor academic performing schools to continue operating. In 2011, DeVos fought against legislation to stop low-performing charter schools from expanding.

DeVos stated her long-term strategy in a 2016 op-ed in The Detroit News, writing, “We need to retire [Detroit Public Schools] and provide new and better education options that focus on Detroit schoolchildren.” She then added that the state “should liberate all students from this woefully under performing district model” and replace the public schools with “a system of schools” (i.e., private and charter) that would provide “high-quality opportunities.”

Unfortunately, the “opportunities” that DeVos speaks of are not for the children in school but for the for-profit charter school system. As the new Secretary of Education she will have the power to continue her strategy and vision.


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