Photo credit: Michael Vadon | Flickr

Born billionaire Betsy Devos has been trying to starve public education for decades and she's been extraordinarily successful at it. Her family's big money has enabled her to ram through her agenda in her home state of Michigan, leading to the biggest funding drop of all the fifty states over the last two decades with an explosion of for-profit charter schools that has helped make the state's schools the second most segregated in the nation, trailing only Mississippi.

As Secretary of Education, she's trying to bring this agenda to the nation, proposing budget cuts to education that were even too severe for a GOP Congress. While she's emboldened usurious lenders, she's abandoned the trans kids' basic rights and fought to make it easier for sexual predators get away with abuse.

Betsy DeVos taking over the Department of Education was the greatest victory for those who seek to starve and re-segregate our public schools. But it could also be its demise.

Help us fire Betsy DeVos and rebuild public education.

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Grading Betsy DeVos’ confirmation day exam

Betsy DeVos believes these 5 things about government. As a career teacher, I thought I’d take this opportunity to grade Ms. DeVos’ responses as though they were answers on an exam. I understand she’s a big fan of “accountability,” so I’m sure she will appreciate the feedback, especially as she crams for her confirmation hearings, scheduled for later today…

1. “Government tends to believe in top down solutions and government fears of bottom up solutions.”

WRONG. Ms. DeVos, a self-described “government outsider,” is a big fan of vouchers, and vouchers are a decidedly top down solution—whenever put to a public vote (i.e., a bottom up solution), they lose, widely and decisively. We also need to deduct points because the vast majority of vouchers don’t come close to covering the cost of private school attendance. As I wrote recently,

The amount of the voucher she received through Florida’s Tax Credit Opportunity Scholarship was around $4000.

The tuition of the private Christian school she attended was around $6000 per year, plus uniforms, books, and fees.

So, the voucher Ms. Meriweather and her family received may have helped, but it certainly did not cover the full cost of attending the school. This is one of the under-reported problems with vouchers–while the rhetoric around vouchers promises to “level the playing field”, and “allow poor children to attend the private school of their choice,” the vast majority of children and families don’t receive enough in the form of vouchers to attend “the school of their choice.”

In fact, there’s an insidious but unmistakable scent of racism and classism associated with voucher programs. As an example: Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and a huge supporter and close friend of Betsy DeVos, sent his own children to the elite Gulliver Prepatory School in FL, where tuition for grades 6-12 rings up at an eye-popping $36,840 per year. Ms. Meriweather’s $4000 voucher wouldn’t have covered textbooks and uniforms at Gulliver–hardly a “game changer.”

The subtle, yet obvious message here is that while Jeb and Betsy want the public tax money that “allows” poor children almost afford to attend some low-level private and Christian schools, they have no intention of letting “those” children go to the same elite private and Christian schools that “their” children attend.

Extra points were deducted for this answer, because the best solutions are some combination of both top-down and bottom-up initiatives–kind of a middle-out. Betsy’s answer reveals a limited grasp of both how government works and how to solve problems. Next question…

2. “Government tends to stifle innovation and it abhors improvisation. Any good military strategist will tell you that a battle plan rarely survives past the first engagement. After that, you have to improvise to survive and to win.”

WRONG. It appears that Betsy knows nothing about “military strategy”, or education strategy for that matter. Her brother, Eric Prince, who founded Blackwater, at least knows how to profit off of armed conflict, but that’s not quite the same as military strategy.

Now, if Betsy wants to see some real improvisation, she should drop by any public school classroom in her hometown—something she hasn’t done for 58 years by all accounts–unless it’s for a photo op to sell her boxed water to unsuspecting children. Teachers are improvising on a minute by minute basis, tweaking lesson plans, and capitalizing on “teachable moments”—or at least they were before Betsy and her friends started ramming the Common Core and dozens of standardized tests down their throats, narrowing the curriculum to reading and math, and driving the innovation out of education in far too many places.

So, Betsy, if you really want to see more innovation and improvisation, back away from policies that lessen local control, let go of your obsession with standardized testing that stifles creativity and diversity of curriculum, and let teachers do their jobs.

3. “Government tends to favor one size fits all solutions handed down from central command.”

WRONG. Actually, this kind of thinking is more characteristic of large organizations of all kinds, not just government–for example, multi-level marketing corporations, where the power is located centrally–say, in one family. A family that adheres to a rigid set of beliefs, perhaps even laid out in a book written by the family patriarch.

Across those efforts, one constant is the DeVos family’s devout Christian beliefs, and the indivisibility they see between Christian and Calvinistic notions and their conservative politics. “The real strength of America is its religious tradition,” Richard DeVos wrote in Believe!. “Too many people today are willing to act as if God had nothing whatsoever to do with it. … This country was built on a religious heritage, and we’d better get back to it. We had better start telling people that faith in God is the real strength of America!” In the mid-1970s, DeVos made major donations to the Christian Freedom Foundation and Third Century Publishers, an outlet that printed books and pamphlets designed to strengthen the ties between Christianity and free-market conservatism; among those products was a guidebook instructing conservative Christians how to win elections and help America become “as it was when first founded—a ‘Christian Republic.’”

Government is actually a system in which competing beliefs are encouraged; where vigorous debate between persons of differing viewpoints is celebrated. Again, Betsy seems to be confusing government with an authoritarian business or family structure–almost as though that’s how she grew up, and knows no other way of dealing with the world.

4. “Government likes committees…a lot. Committees kill all the really good ideas and generally all the really bad ideas. They produce middle ground mush.”

PARTIAL CREDIT. Betsy has a point here–government does like committees. But only partial credit, because it appears that some, large, West Michigan families like committees, too…a lot:

Over time, the DeVos clan has evolved an unusual and highly structured internal governance system. Family patriarch Richard DeVos, now 90 and retired from an active role in Amway, explained the formal structure of this family government in his 2014 book, Simply Rich:

“We formed the DeVos Family Council, which is made up of our children and their spouses and meets four times a year. The Family Council just approved a family constitution that essentially captures our family mission and values. … The Family Council also articulates how the family will work together in managing our shared financial interests and our philanthropy.

“We also have the Family Assembly …. When grandchildren turn 16, they are inducted … in a formal ceremony that everyone attends. An aunt or uncle makes a presentation of their achievements, reminds them of their responsibility as they go forward, and affirms them as a member of the Family Assembly. … They are able to vote in the meetings at age 25, after they have met additional qualifications for taking on this added responsibility.”

This collective approach is how the family runs their home lives, too. The DeVoses’ myriad properties are managed through a single private company, RDV Corporation, which both manages the family’s investments and operates as a home office, paying the family’s employees, maintaining the DeVoses’ residences and assuring them as frictionless a life as possible. (The duties outlined by one recent property-manager job with RDV Corporation include “ensur[ing] doors are well-oiled to avoid squeaking” and that “broken toys [are] repaired or disposed of.”)

5. “Government prefers control and tightly-defined systems. It fears entrepreneurs, open systems, and crowd sourcing. All of which they find threatening.”

WRONG. Again, Betsy seems to be confusing government with the influence of wealthy, conservative political activists who have never held elected office, but wield brutal control over a state’s legislature, economy, and education system…

Privately, many Michigan Republicans are afraid of getting on the DeVoses’ bad side. “At the American Federation of Teachers, there were always Republicans we’d endorse,” recalls Matuzak, who retired from the union in 2014. “And it got to the point where … the Republicans would say, ‘Please don’t endorse me because it will hurt me with the DeVoses.’ They’d send back money because the DeVoses would punish them.” (In an email to POLITICO, the chief of staff to one Republican state senator declined comment for this story, saying it would “not be productive” before linking to two anti-DeVos columns in the Detroit Free Press. The articles “speak for themselves,” he wrote.)

“There’s a general awareness if they’re not supporting you,” says John Truscott, a longtime Republican operative in Michigan and the president of Truscott-Rossman, a powerhouse bipartisan PR firm that represents the DeVos family on certain matters. “If you’re always getting along with everybody, you’re probably not making a difference.”

Year by year, cycle by cycle, the DeVoses built a state Legislature in their own image. By the time Democrat Jennifer Granholm was term-limited in 2010 and Republican Rick Snyder was elected governor without any political experience, it was the DeVoses, not Snyder, who knew how to get things done. Unlike the Engler years, this time, they had more sway than the governor.

Today, 16 years after the DeVoses’ failed constitutional amendment, this constant push has totally remade Michigan education. The cap on the number of charter schools eliminated and attempts to provide public oversight have been defeated, making Michigan’s charters among the most-plentiful and least-regulated in the nation. About 80 percent of Michigan’s 300 publicly funded charters are operated by for-profit companies, more than any other state. This means that taxpayer dollars that would otherwise go to traditional public schools are instead used to buy supplies such as textbooks and desks that become private property. It is, essentially, a giant experiment in what happens when you shift resources away from public schools.

FINAL GRADE = 0.5/5; F

Good luck with your confirmation hearings today, Betsy. I hope you studied.

[CC DeVos image by Michael Vadon | Flickr]

 
 
 

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