by Félix Pérez
Michigan voters will go to the polls this November to elect the state’s next governor, and educators and public education advocates have a clear choice: a candidate who wants to put an end to the Betsy DeVos “pay to play” agenda in the state, and another who supports DeVos’s efforts to divert scarce public school funds for vouchers and has received more than $100,000 from the DeVos family and DeVos organizations.
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Gretchen Whitmer, the daughter and granddaughter of educators, has been recommended by the state’s largest school employee union, the Michigan Education Association. At a meeting last month with educators, she said, “No one goes into education because they think it’s going to be lucrative. They do it because they care about our kids. In 2018 we’re going to stop the dismantling of public education and put an end to the DeVos agenda in Michigan.” She added, “If we’re going to fix the education system in our state, we need leaders who will reject the DeVos pay-to-play agenda.”
Whitmer will likely face off against Republican front-runner Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general. Schuette wrote an editorial in favor of DeVos for education secretary. In it, he took a swipe at public schools, saying, “too often the educational model looks like a horse and buggy system built on corduroy roads.” Schuette and DeVos have long standing ties in Michigan, where DeVos lives. The DeVos family and DeVos organizations contributed at least $136,000 to Schuette’s campaigns between 2009-2014.
Macomb County music teacher Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, upon announcing MEA’s recommendation of Whitmer last month in the Democratic primary, said Whitmer is “committed to listening to the voices of front-line experts in classrooms across the state before moving forward with changes that will affect us and our students, …and that will be a welcome change to the way business is done in Lansing.”
While a state legislator, Whitmer fought efforts to divert money from the School Aid Fund. As Democratic leader in the state Senate, she voted against a law recently overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court that took 3 percent out of educators’ paychecks to fund retiree health care. The law was challenged in court by MEA.
Schuette defended the educator paycheck-takings law in court for six years. Despite his recent claims that he supported the lawsuit by educators, Schuette argued against teachers and support staff getting the wages they were rightfully owed. He decided to no longer defend the law when it was taken up by the Michigan Supreme Court.
In another instance of rewriting history, Schuette was criticized last week for posting a social media graphic in which he wrote, “Had government leaders listened sooner to real people, we could have slowed or stopped crises like Flint …” Schuette was referring to the Flint water crisis, in which 9,000-10,000 children six years and younger were exposed to lead poisoning from the city’s drinking water. Flint water activists Nayyirah Shariff and Melissa Mays tore into Schuette’s hypocrisy. “If Schuette wants to blame ‘government leaders’ for being slow to respond to the crisis, he needs to count himself among the guiltiest.” Schuette’s office received 15 complaints before he launched an investigation into the Flint water contamination crisis; he received some a year before the investigation was launched.
Schuette’s cozy relationship with DeVos, a decades-long advocate of charter schools and school vouchers, raises concerns. “It’s a breath of fresh air that someone of Betsy’s caliber, knowledge, passion and drive would be the next education secretary of the United States of America,” he said after President Trump nominated DeVos for education secretary. “I share her philosophy of more choices more options, scholarships, what have you, particularly for disadvantaged areas so that parents are in the driver seat of where their children’s education journey will be.”
Whitmer, on the other hand, wants to rein in unaccountable charter schools. “For-profit companies have broken our education system. We cannot continue to let Michigan’s charter schools fail our kids. It’s time we put much-needed oversight in place to hold charter schools accountable…” She continued, “Right now, we’re not doing enough for the kids of this state, and let me be clear, it is not the fault of the heroes on the front line every single day,” she said. “It’s because our leaders in Lansing have undermined local control, they’ve undervalued education through budget cuts and they’ve underappreciated the educators and support staff in our schools.”