by Félix Pérez; image above, Gretchen Whitmer with Dreamer student supporters
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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos casts a large shadow in her home state of Michigan, having left a trail of failed, for-profit charter schools that have diverted scarce funding from neighborhood public schools.
Gretchen Whitmer, a front-runner in the state’s election for governor, wants to take Michigan out from underneath that shadow. A former prosecutor and state Senate leader, Whitmer has pledged to “stop the dismantling of public education and put an end to the DeVos agenda in Michigan,” while her likely opponent, Bill Schuette, has received more than $120,000 of financial support from the DeVos family and has vowed to continue her experiment.
“I am the product of Michigan public schools, the daughter of a teacher from the Lansing public schools, the granddaughter of a teacher superintendent from the Waterford public schools, the granddaughter of a superintendent from the Pontiac public schools,” said Whitmer at a rally where she received the backing of the 140,000-member Michigan Education Association. “And it is thanks to all these perspectives that I know the sacrifices that Michigan educators make: the teachers, the bus drivers, the parapros, the counselors, the nurses, the aides, the people who work in the office and everyone else who makes our schools work.”
In an interview with the Michigan Education, she said, “One of the things we can do to empower school employees is elect a governor who’s not beholden to the DeVos family, a governor who understands how critical the educator’s voice is in creating the best policies around our schools.”
Among her priorities:
- Restore education funding and protect it from being raided to bail out other parts of the budget. “The states that are turning around educational outcomes for kids are the ones making a meaningful investment in children.”
- Expand early childhood education to all Michigan kids.
- Hold accountable for-profit companies that operate 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.”
- Respect and support teachers and support staff, and invest in classrooms and wraparound services, including health, nutrition and counseling. “We need to stop attacking educators’ pay and their benefits, and their ability to determine what’s happening in the classroom.”
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 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.
Whitmer’s likely opponent, Bill 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 owed. He decided to no longer defend the law when it was taken up by the Michigan Supreme Court, where MEA recently won a major victory in getting its members’ money returned to them.
Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general, is a longtime DeVos defender. After a recent 60 Minutes interview in which DeVos displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about public education, Schuette tweeted, “Betsy DeVos is a smart and gifted leader in education. . . Great Secy (sic) of Education.”
Similarly, when DeVos’s nomination for education secretary was in jeopardy, he wrote an editorial in favor of DeVos. 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 the DeVos family lives. The DeVos family and DeVos organizations contributed at least $122,800 to Schuette’s campaigns.
Like DeVos, Schuette is a strong supporter of charter schools and school vouchers. According to VoteSmart, an independent voter website, Schuette supports providing “parents with state-funded vouchers to send their children to any participating school (public, private, religious).”