by Félix Pérez
Betsy DeVos’ involvement with and funding of efforts to privatize public schools stretches back decades in her home state of Michigan and other states. The multi-billionaire lobbyist and political donor will appear this afternoon (5 pm ET) before the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee in a much anticipated hearing.
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DeVos, who has no experience or training in public education, has been an outspoken leader on behalf of “school choice,” code words for private school vouchers, unaccountable charter schools, education savings accounts and tax credits, dating to the early 1990s. DeVos and her husband, Mike, have spent upward of $10 million in lobbying for voucher programs across the country. According to her website, Betsy DeVos serves as chairman of the American Federation for Children, the largest organization in the United States promoting vouchers, corporate tax credits and other school choice programs.
As early as 1993, DeVos and her husband were involved in the passage of Michigan’s first charter school bill. They are widely credited with a law passed in 2011 that lifted the cap on the number of Michigan charter schools. Currently, 80 percent of the state’s charter schools are run by private for-profit companies, a percentage higher than any other state.
But Michigan’s hands-off approach to charter school accountability has resulted in lower academic performance than traditional public schools “and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit operators,” reported the newspaper Politico. In fact, Michigan, in the first-ever analysis of state charter school policies by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, was found to have one of the lowest state ratings for holding charter school authorizers accountable for their schools’ academic performance. The state received only three out of a possible 27 points when measured against the organization’s own best practices.
Former Lansing, MI, community school coordinator and Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook took to the Detroit News to lay the blame for the state’s woeful charter school performance squarely at the feet of DeVos.
Betsy DeVos has brought a single-minded ideological fervor to Michigan’s charter school movement — especially in Detroit. With the weight of her family’s millions in campaign donations to Michigan legislators, she has lobbied to create the most wide open charter school law in the country.
The result: a charter school industry in Michigan unlike anywhere in the nation, “boasting” more for-profit charters than any other state.
Last year, DeVos praised Donald Trump’s plan to use $20 billion in existing federal education funding to give to states for private school vouchers and charter schools. At risk under such a proposal are services for millions of students served by Title I, Pell Grants and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Following are key points on the DeVos school privatization timeline:
- 1993: Betsy and Dick DeVos were involved in passing Michigan’s first charter school bill.
- 1998 to 2008: The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation spends more than $7 million to expand school choice.
- 2000: Betsy and Dick DeVos spend $5 million to change the Michigan Constitution to allow tax-credit scholarships or vouchers.” Sixty-eight percent of Michigan voters rejected the voucher scheme.
- 2001: DeVos cites Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, enacted and launched in 2001, as one of her biggest successes. “The program functions similar to a traditional private school voucher, but it is less vulnerable to legal challenges because its funding comes from money that is redirected from corporate taxes.”
- 2002: DeVos advocates for Michigan to get rid of its constitutional ban on school vouchers after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for publicly funded vouchers to pay for religious schools.
- 2011: The DeVoses and the Great Lakes Education Project, which the couple founded, lobbies successfully to lift a cap on the number of charter schools in Detroit, defeating a provision that would have kept failing schools from expanding. Betsy DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” which is “what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country.”
- 2014: DeVos cites as one of her biggest successes legislation to create an education tax credit program in Florida, which can be used to pay for private school tuition.
- 2016: DeVos and her Great Lakes Education Project succeed in getting the Michigan Legislature to abandon a plan to create a citywide commission in Detroit to regulate the opening and closure of charter schools. The bill included a “provision to stop failing charter operators from creating new schools.”