Charterize, Privatize, Christianize: The DeVos-Backed Policies That “Gutted” Michigan Public Schools

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is facing new criticism after she struggled in a recent “60 Minutes” interview to explain why schools in her home state of Michigan are faring poorly under the policies she has championed. DeVos is a billionaire Republican activist and the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. She once served as chair of the American Federation for Children in Michigan, where she promoted school choice and worked to expand the state’s use of private charter schools. Many educators say the results of DeVos’s policies in Michigan have been disastrous. For more, we speak with Allie Gross, a reporter with the Detroit Free Press. She covered education in Michigan as a freelance reporter and was a Teach for America teacher in a Detroit charter school.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is facing new criticism after she struggled Sunday to explain why schools in her home state of Michigan are faring poorly under the policies she has championed. DeVos is a billionaire Republican activist and the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. She once served as chair of the American Federation for Children in Michigan, where she promoted school choice and worked to expand the state’s use of private charter schools. Many educators say the results of DeVos’s policies in Michigan have been disastrous.

Well, on Sunday, Betsy DeVos appeared on 60 Minutes and was questioned by Lesley Stahl about her policies.

LESLEY STAHL: Why take money away from that school, that’s not working, to bring them up to a level where they are—that school is working?

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in school—school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems. And it’s—so it should be—

LESLEY STAHL: OK, but what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working? What about those kids?

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: If—well, in places where there have been—where there is a lot of choice that’s been introduced—Florida, for example—the studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools, actually, the results get better, as well.

LESLEY STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.

LESLEY STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall—I can’t say, overall, that they have all gotten better.

LESLEY STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well. And—

LESLEY STAHL: No, but your argument that if you take funds away, that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan, where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: I hesitate to talk about all schools, in general, because schools are made up of individual students attending them.

LESLEY STAHL: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.

LESLEY STAHL: Have you seen the really bad schools, maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

LESLEY STAHL: Maybe you should.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: Maybe I should, yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Criticism of Betsy DeVos’s comments on 60 Minutes have been overwhelming. And this is just the latest controversy to mark her first year in office. Under her leadership, the Department of Education has rolled back Title IX guidelines on handling sexual assault on college campuses, and revoked dozens of policy documents detailing the rights of disabled students. DeVos also has refused to say whether the federal government should prevent private schools that accept public money from discriminating against some students.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Allie Gross, a reporter with the Detroit Free Press. She covered education in Michigan as a freelance reporter, was a Teach for America teacher in a Detroit charter school. Her piece on Betsy DeVos includes an article for Vice headlined “Out of Options: School choice gutted Detroit’s public schools. The rest of the country is next.”

Allie, welcome to Democracy Now!

ALLIE GROSS: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: First, respond to the 60 Minutes interview.

ALLIE GROSS: Oh, wow! I mean, just even the clip you just played, I feel like there’s a lot there. But I’ll start kind of with the beginning, with how she’s saying that we need to invest in students and not institutions or systems. And I guess I can say, as a former teacher, as now a reporter who’s been covering these schools, and just as someone who’s attended school, we can all kind of agree that schools are so much bigger. What makes an education is the curriculum, the teachers, the school buildings. And so, I don’t exactly understand what Secretary DeVos would be implying by saying we need to just invest in the kids, because it’s all of those other moving parts, it’s the system, it’s the institution, that actually makes an education. So I think that that’s kind of the first red flag. I don’t know who or what would be educating students, if it’s not investing in those very important systems that exist.

I guess the other aspect there is what we already see, especially in Michigan. So, in Michigan, we have, obviously, charter schools. And we also have, at the same time charter schools came about, the state Legislature also passed Proposal A, which has money following students. So, about $7,500 follows each student in the state. And when you have those two things together, competition paired with this money following students, it creates this chaotic system, and it also makes it far more difficult for really any of the schools to provide the kind of full education that they would normally be able to. So, Professor Hammer, who is a professor at Wayne State University who’s written a lot about this, he describes it as a positive feedback loop. And so, if you have a student who is at a Detroit public school who decides to leave, and that $7,500 leaves with them, what can happen is the overhead costs—you know, having teachers, paying for heating inside the building—all of these overhead costs, they don’t just suddenly dissipate because the student leaves. And so schools have to make cuts. And so, when they make cuts, maybe they’ll get rid of a social worker. Maybe they’ll get rid of an art class. Maybe they’ll cram more students into a classroom. Those cuts make the school less appealing. And so you have more students who then, in turn, leave the school. And so, when Secretary DeVos says we can’t invest in systems or institutions, I would argue, based off kind of the reporting I’ve done and also being in a school, that you really do need to invest in those institutions. It’s kind of the core.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Allie Gross, I wanted to ask you, first of all, in terms of the role of Betsy DeVos in the mushrooming of charter schools in Michigan, many folks across the nation are not familiar with her particular role in that.

ALLIE GROSS: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that, as well?

ALLIE GROSS: Sure. So we can kind of scale back a little bit. And this is—it’s not just Secretary DeVos. It’s kind of—it’s her whole—it’s her family. And so, we want to scale back to 1993, is when discussions in Michigan began about charter legislation and also Proposal A, which I just discussed. ’94 is when the charter legislation passed.

Now, Curt Guyette, who I think has been on this show before, and I’m a big fan of his, he wrote this amazing piece in 1996 for the Detroit Metro Times, and it details the beginning of the charter school movement in Michigan. And why I think this piece is so important is it was written just two years after the charter legislation passed, so it really—it doesn’t have all of this kind of future analysis that we can look back on. It’s talking right in the moment. And it gives a really interesting perspective.

And what Curt found was there were four families, and two of those families include the DeVoses and the Princes, so Secretary DeVos’s mother and father. And the four families, they donated a quarter of a million dollars between 1989 and 1994 to school reform organizations that were pushing for the charter legislation. So they were very much behind passing this. They also were donating to Governor John Engler at the time, who, when he came into office, his two big things were breaking down—so, giving less power to the teachers’ unions and also to lower property taxes, which were both made possible through Proposal A and charter schools. And what Curt describes, which I think is really interesting, he talks about the motivations. And he says that the four families that were really kind of bankrolling this legislation, they all were very much a part and donating to religious organizations and activities in the United States at the time and were pushing for kind of the Christianization of politics in America.

And what Curt describes is, and the way he explains it is, that there was this goal of almost using charters to eventually get “parochiaid,” because—or funding for parochial schools, because, in 1978, Michiganders voted overwhelmingly against voucher schools, and so this was maybe another route. You had to reassess how to—if voters aren’t going to vote for vouchers, so that’s money for private and religious schools, what’s another method by which we can do that? And the two kind of main strategies that came about with this charter school movement was, one, kind of creating this narrative of public schools in crisis, because once you can get the public to believe that public schools are failing, it’s far easier to convince them that an alternative is necessary. The second step would be coming up kind of with this middle ground. If people don’t feel comfortable giving public dollars to private institutions, you have charters, which is this kind of more palatable—it kind of falls between, I guess, you can say, you have public dollars, private management, and so you have—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted just to jump in for a second—

ALLIE GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —on that issue of public money and private management. One of the problems with charter schools is that there’s very little accountability.

ALLIE GROSS: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You, yourself, had that experience working, didn’t you, at a charter school, in terms of accountability?

ALLIE GROSS: I did, yeah. So, in terms of that, yeah. I worked at a charter school for three years in Detroit. And the school that I was at, something that was kind of frustrating to me was exactly what you’re saying: There was not a lot of financial accountability.

And so, my second year at the school, our superintendent at the time announced that he was going to be leaving the district to go work for a organization called the Good Schools Resource Center. And he was going to be in charge of providing resources to not just my school anymore, but dozens of schools across the city, charter and public. And I found this to be pretty peculiar at the time, because my school lacked cohesive systems. It had really poor test scores. It kind of—we didn’t have any curriculum. I was a Teach for America teacher with five weeks’ training, and I was kind of brought into a classroom with no curriculum. And I think we had a few kind of textbooks sitting in the classroom. But I was, you know, creating curriculum based off what I thought made sense for fifth grade students. And I will be completely honest: I had no clue what I was doing. And so, when it was announced that the superintendent was leaving, I found this peculiar. It made me sort of question kind of the bigger education landscape in Detroit, because, again, my school was deemed, because superficially it looked really pretty, we had really great marketing—it was deemed one of the better charter schools, one of the better schools in the city. And so this disconnect surprised me.

But my third year, the superintendent, he had already left. He maintained a presence on campus. He would still be able to call meetings. And I found this to be odd. And so, at a meeting, my third year, in May, that he had called—he was no longer our superintendent—I was fed up. And because I knew I was probably not going to stay at the school any longer, I had kind of a advantage over some of my teacher—some of my colleagues, in the sense that we were not unionized, so many were afraid to maybe speak up. But because I knew I was planning on leaving, I had that kind of leverage. And so, I asked him, “Are you on payroll?” And he said, “No,” continued on with the meeting. And then, as I was leaving, because I had a meeting with a parent, he stopped me, and he was like, “Lady in red”—he didn’t even know my name. And he said, “I’m not on payroll, but my consulting company is.” And that, to me, was mind-boggling, because here we are in May. Who is he consulting? How did none of the teachers know about this consulting gig? What—my classroom didn’t have a working pencil sharpener.

AMY GOODMAN: Allie—

ALLIE GROSS: It was so hard—yes, sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to the end—before we get to the end of the segment, I wanted to go back to Betsy DeVos appearing on 60 Minutes.

ALLIE GROSS: Yeah, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: She was asked about the criticism from students in Parkland, Florida, on the Trump administration’s response to the school shootings.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: I give a lot of credit to the students there for really raising their voices. And I think that they are not going to let this moment go by.

LESLEY STAHL: They want gun control.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: They want a variety of things. They want solutions.

LESLEY STAHL: Do you think that teachers should have guns in the classroom?

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: That should be an option for states and communities to consider. And I hesitate to think of like my first grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff. I couldn’t ever imagine her—

LESLEY STAHL: Right.

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: —having a gun and being trained in that way. But for those who are—who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered. But no one size fits all. Every state and every community is going to address this, this issue, in a different way.

AMY GOODMAN: While President Trump castigated Republican senators in his now well-known meeting that he had, saying, “Don’t be afraid of the NRA,” it looks like right now he’s walked back all of his push for comprehensive gun control and is walking in lockstep with the NRA. Allie, we have like 30 seconds, if you can respond to guns in the schools and the activism?

ALLIE GROSS: I mean, I cannot even imagine personally having a gun. All of my teacher friends that I’ve spoken with, they do not feel comfortable having guns. I know that Michigan—two Michigan Republican legislators have recently started working on a bill to allow guns to be in classrooms with teachers, and that would require 80 hours of training for those teachers. Just that aside, I don’t know what teacher has that time for that training, because you’re lesson planning, you’re calling parents, you’re working with parents, you’re working with your students, you’re lesson planning. There’s so much that goes into the classroom. There just seems to be so many problems that could come about by having guns in the classroom.

AMY GOODMAN: Allie Gross, we want to thank you for being with us, reporter with the Detroit Free Press, covered education in Michigan as a freelance reporter, was a Teach for America teacher in a Detroit charter school.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the growing resistance to an Energy Transfer Partners pipeline that is going through Louisiana. Stay with us. It’s called the Bayou Bridge pipeline.

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