The ultimate target of Betsy DeVos’ agenda isn’t teachers unions, or even the *education establishment.* It’s the Democratic Party…
By the measures that are supposed to matter, Betsy DeVos’ experiment in disrupting public education in Michigan has been a colossal failure. In its 2016 report on the state of the state’s schools, Education Trust Midwest painted a picture of an education system in freefall. *Michigan is witnessing systematic decline across the K-12 spectrum…White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income—it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.* But as I heard repeatedly during the week I recently spent crisscrossing the state, speaking with dozens of Michiganders, including state and local officials, the radical experiment that’s playing out here has little to do with education, and even less to do with kids. The real goal of the DeVos family is to crush the state’s teachers unions as a means of undermining the Democratic party, weakening Michigan’s democratic structures along the way. And on this front, our likely next Secretary of Education has enjoyed measurable, even dazzling success.
This story goes back a long ways, so settle in. We could start in the 1840’s, when the first Dutch settlers began to arrive in Western Michigan, or in 1970, when the DeVoses made their first attempt to amend the state constitution so as to allow for public funding for private, religious schools. Another obvious starting point is 1993, when then Governor John Engler called the public schools in Michigan an *educational gulag* and a *monopoly of mediocrity,* lobbing the first fusillade in a war against the state’s teachers that has never ceased. For the sake of brevity, though, I’ll fast forward to the mid-oughts, when Betsy’s husband Dick DeVos ran for governor. It was the fourth time that the DeVoses had brought their crusade to give the market and the Maker more sway over the state’s schools to the voters, and each time Mitten staters had delivered a resounding *no thanks* in response. And so the DeVoses pivoted. If they couldn’t convince voters to enact their favored policies, they’d purchase the legislature instead.
A characteristic DeVos move in Lansing traces a familiar pattern. A piece of legislation suddenly appears courtesy of a family ally. It pops up late in the session, late at night, or better still, during lame duck, when the usual legislative horse trading shifts into overdrive. So it was with a controversial bill that popped up 2013, doubling the limits for campaign contributions—a limit that no one in Michigan was wealthy enough to hit. Well almost no one. The GOP jammed the measure through, Governor Snyder signed it, and it took effect immediately. *The DeVoses then got their whole clan together and held a check writing party,* recalls Jeff Irwin, a Democratic state representative from Ann Arbor who was recently term-limited out. *It was a love letter to the richest people in Michigan and they delivered with a huge thank you.*
I was captivated by the image of the extended DeVos clan gathered on New Year’s Eve 2013, writing check after check to Republican candidates and caucuses, to the tune of more than $300,000, an exercise they would repeat just a few months later. Did they sip champagne as they signed? Did their hands grow weary? For the DeVoses, the ability to give even more money means that they can exert even more influence. *When you empower a billionaire family like that, you give them more power,* Michigan Campaign Finance Network director Craig Mauger told me when I stopped by to see him in Lansing. Just blocks from the Capital, his office is in a part of the city that teems with the lobbyists who hold so much sway here. His building is home to not one, but two different for-profit charter operators. *The DeVoses are tilting the field and changing the structures of politics in Michigan.*
To understand why the DeVoses exert so much influence, and more importantly, why their power has only increased in recent years, a quick session in civics is required. Today’s topic: term limits. Approved in 1992 by voters in a *throw out the bums* state of mind, term limits have radically reordered the state’s political landscape. Legislators here can serve no more than three two-year terms in the House, and two four-year terms in the state Senate—the strictest limits in the country. *They’re in office for such a short time that it doesn’t pay off for them to build a strong base of support in their own districts,* Steve Norton, the head of the public education advocacy group Michigan Parents for Schools, explained to me. Instead, legislators are highly dependent on the party machinery, down to being told which way to vote. *They salute and follow caucus orders,* says Norton. As both the funders of the GOP machine, and its de facto operators, that means that the DeVoses essentially control the legislature these days. *They are the 800 lb gorilla.*
By now, you probably think that I’m exaggerating. That it is simply inconceivable that a state that in the 19th century led the way in creating a public K-16 system could come to be so dominated by a family that seems intent on blowing it up. But virtually no one I spoke with saw any chance of putting the brakes on the DeVoses and their agenda—at least until something is done about gerrymandering and the state’s notoriously inadequate campaign finance laws. While Business Leaders for Michigan, a CEO group, has begun to cast a wary eye on what the DeVos-led experiment in choice unfettering is doing to the state’s economic standing, they’ve avoided taking on the DeVoses and their allies, including the Chamber of Commerce, that have made the family’s priorities their own. Meanwhile, the incoming legislature is even more conservative than the one it’s replacing, as the Great Lakes Education Project’s Gary Naeyaert pointed out to me with glee when we spoke late last year. GLEP, founded and funded by Betsy DeVos, backed 34 legislators in the last election, each of whom answered the *right* way on the group’s candidate survey; 30 of them won.
John Stewart, a former Republican state rep who now practices law in Plymouth, 25 miles west of Detroit, laughed out loud when I asked him if there is anyone in Michigan whom the DeVoses are afraid of. Stewart ran afoul of the DeVoses back in 2002 when he refused to cast a vote in favor of lifting the state’s cap on charter schools. He got *taken to the woodshed,* in Lansing parlance, and told that Betsy DeVos had a $10,000 check for him if he voted the right way, and that unpleasantness lay ahead if he didn’t. He declined the money. *I’m not some prostitute for the sake of $10,000,* says Stewart, who switched his party affiliation in 2007.
Like Betsy DeVos, Stewart hails from the western Michigan city of Holland. His mother was a VanDerVen, and seven of her twelve sisters were public school teachers, including one who was the very first special education teacher in the state. As Stewart told me when I visited him at his law office, former governor John Engler shared the DeVos’ desire to destroy public education, but he was powerful enough to serve as an occasional counterweight to them. He was against their effort to amend the constitution to allow for vouchers because he saw it as a political loser. And when Betsy DeVos first sought to become chairwoman of the state Republican party in 2000, Engler resisted. *He thought she was too divisive and too extreme,* says Stewart. Today, there isn’t anyone left to say *no* to the DeVoses. The moderate wing of the GOP, still referred to here as Milliken Republicans for the popular governor who ran the state from 1969 to 1983, barely exists. *They’ve been obliterated by the DeVoses,* says Stewart.
Whatever happened to local control?
Several times during my tour of Michigan, I heard a story about some political development so over-the-top sounding, so preposterous seeming as to be unbelievable. Later on I’d look it up, only to discover that it was even worse than what had been described. Like Senate Bill 571, the so-called *gag order* law intended to keep public entities from talking to their constituents about local ballot measures—school millages and bonds to fund public services. It came on the heels of another DeVos priority, a bill banning straight ticket voting in the state, or rather in Detroit, where African American voters are overwhelmingly Democrats. Bill 571 arrived late one night at the end of the session in the form of a lengthy amendment put forward by a DeVos legislator. Republicans were instructed by their caucus to vote for it but not allowed to read it. The judge who slapped an injunction on the measure did so because it was *unconstitutionally vague,* not to mention absurd; officials who mentioned a ballot measure in a city newsletter within sixty days of an election could be prosecuted.
The law would have so hamstrung local school districts that Moody’s issued a report deeming it *credit negative.* And that was exactly the point, East Grand Rapids school board member Elizabeth Welch told me. *What better way to convince local communities that it’s time to abandon their public schools, even the good ones, than to let their buildings fall apart?* Her district in the Republican stronghold of western Michigan, the DeVos’ home base, was trying to pass a bond measure for its high school when Governor Snyder signed the new law. *You defund the schools, you undermine them, you expand choice for the sake of choice, all towards the ultimate goal of destroying public education,* says Welch. As for local control, a supposed Republican tenet, you don’t hear so much about it in Michigan these days. As one sitting legislator told me, the very words have all but disappeared from the Republican lexicon.
By the midpoint of my trip, I’d lost count of the number of people who had told me that the DeVoses were out to destroy public education in Michigan. More chilling though were the matter-of-fact recitations of just how much progress has been made towards realizing that goal. *Choice* in its myriad forms—charter schools, virtual schools, inter-district choice—has exploded across the state, leading to steep drops in student enrollment in two-thirds of school districts. Districts that end up in the red now risk state takeover thanks to the long tentacles of the emergency management law.
*They have succeeded in diminishing the public school establishment financially and weakening it,* former State Board of Education member John Austin told me. He was referring to what a certain brand of education reformer refers to derisively as *the blob*—the teachers and their unions, the school boards and the superintendents—those who resist disruption because they have a stake in the schools, which, in Michigan, turns out to be just about everyone. Austin lost his Board seat in the last election, a casualty of the Trump wavelet. Ironically, the same straight-ticket voting that the Republicans recently tried to ban likely benefited them in November. Austin, who is mulling a run for governor, maintains that the DeVos’ fierce push for a largely unregulated education marketplace is but a means to their ultimate goal. *This is about taking down the existing public school infrastructure and the Democratic party.*
Back to the future
In 1968, Walter Reuther, the head of the mighty auto workers union, traveled from Detroit to Memphis to march with Martin Luther King Jr. and striking sanitation workers. On the eve of King’s assassination, Reuther told the workers that the labor movement would drag Memphis into the 20th century. Tennessee, like most southern states, had enacted right-to-work legislation, what unions once called the *slave labor act.* But as historian Jefferson Cowie points out, Reuther’s prediction was wrong. History moved the other way, and after the GOP wave election of 2012, right-to-work swept through the midwest: Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, the state where the Flint sit-down strike of 1936 ushered in the era of industrial unionism.
There is no way to explain how *right to work* works without calling upon obscure union lingo—agency fee, closed shop, free riders, Taft-Hartley, Section 14(b)—not to mention the long, tortured history of US labor law. So I will bypass the *how* and proceed directly to the *why*: right-to-work curtails the power of unions and keeps workers weak. It’s a priority for those who would like to see an end to unions, which is why when the bill that enacted right-to-work in Michigan suddenly appeared late in 2012, bearing all of the hallmarks of a classic DeVos move (a lame duck session, no committee hearings, the gallery filled with GOP staffers so as to keep out the public), Betsy herself was reportedly on the chamber floor, corralling wavering legislators with the DeVos family recipe of largesse and threats.
In their excellent new book about the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, Bob Bruno and Steven Ashby explain that the call for the evisceration of what public sector workers can negotiate over isn’t primarily about saving states money. *It is about blocking the ability of organized labor to translate workplace representation power into social and political power.* This is where the DeVoses and their allies have been so successful. The terrain of what teachers in Michigan are allowed to bargain over has been drastically shrunk, with the aim of sending union members this message: *There is nothing your union can do you for you,* in order that they should ask the logical follow-up question: *So why am I paying union dues?*
The union leaders I talked to were candid about how devastating the DeVos’ efforts have been. The unbridled growth of charter schools, almost all of which are non-union, means that new teachers in the state are far less likely to be union members. In Detroit, for example, the once powerful Detroit Federation of Teachers is down to just 3,000 members from more than 9,000 a decade ago, while fully half of the teachers in the city are unorganized. Meanwhile, an array of new legislation has taken direct aim at the machinery of how unions are run. The same election law package enacted last year that included the *gag order* made it illegal for employers, including school districts, to process union dues, while simultaneously making it easier for corporations to deduct PAC money from employee paychecks.
The DeVos’ target is the unions’ political war chest, and here too their handiwork has had its desired effect. With fewer resources to draw upon, the Michigan Education Association and the far smaller American Federation of Teachers, have less to give to candidates and political campaigns, to canvassing operations and phone banks, to get out the vote efforts and yard signs. During the most recent political cycle, the DeVos family outspent the two largest unions in the state, the UAW and the MEA, by a wide margin. The tragedy of all of this if you are, as this author is, a believer in unions yet clear-eyed about their flaws, their forever falling-short-ness, and their infuriating hideboundedness, is that the loss of political influence in Michigan has made the unions more risk averse than ever. The state went big for Bernie in the primaries, its unions stuck with Hillary. On election night Trump won Michigan by a mere 10,000 votes.
A glimmer of hope
You need a reprieve at this point; I know, I did too. And so we will pause here to meet some teachers, and to remind ourselves that no matter how systematic and well-funded the assault on collective action and democracy may be, the impulse to fight back, to resist, is almost impossible to quash completely. Asenath Jones, Vanessa Dawson, Stephanie Griffin and Lacetia Walker all teach in Detroit, and while you may not know them, you know of them. They helped to organize the sick-outs last year to call attention to, well, everything that’s befallen the Detroit schools, their students and their teachers. Protests had been happening in a scattered form for months, but then former Flint emergency manager Darrell Earley, the same guy who oversaw that city’s switchover to Flint River water before being appointed emergency manager for the Detroit public schools, called out the teachers as unethical.
*That was the last straw,* says Dawson. She texted her colleagues, who texted their colleagues, and when organizers held a conference call, more than 1,000 teachers phoned in. The following week, teachers at some sixty schools refused to report to work. At its peak, the sick-outs shut down 94 of the city’s 97 schools. Media reports routinely characterized the protests as being about appalling school conditions—mushrooms! mold!—and the outrageous demand by the teachers that they be paid for their work. That was partly true, says Griffin, but the sick-outs were about so much more. The teachers were sounding a collective *enough* to endless cuts, closures and punishments, and to the entire thrust of education policies, dreamed up in Lansing and directed at Detroit. Says Griffin: *The assumption is that black and brown teachers aren’t prepared to teach, and black and brown kids aren’t prepared to learn.*
Griffin started out teaching at charter schools here, then moved to Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority when it was just getting off the ground, lured in part by a starting salary $20,000 higher than what new Detroit teachers make. But what she saw appalled her—*they were basically using minority kids to test software*—and she worked with other teachers to shut the EAA down. Griffin was also part of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s School Children, the group that pushed for Detroit to have more of a say over its schools, garnering the support of the city’s mayor, the civic elites and the Detroit Free Press, before running smack into the DeVos buzzsaw last summer.
Now she is part of a group within the union that calls itself *Detroit Teachers for Fairness and Equity.* Their mission, as fellow member Asenath Jones describes it, is *to lead our union back to greatness.* They are what education reformers might call teacher leaders, and they are all too aware that their skills and knowledge would command far more pay if they gave up on on Detroit and decamped for the suburbs. But for now they’re hanging in and fighting on.
If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much
It was time for me to head west, to Michigan’s second capital: Grand Rapids. I took the DeVos Place exit, passing by the DeVos Place Convention Center and the DeVos Performance Hall. At the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, I stood in rapt awe before the enormous portraits of Richard DeVos Sr. and his Amway cofounder, Jay Van Andel. I went to Ada, home to Dick and Betsy, and to the sprawling headquarters of Amway, the multi-level marketing behemoth that is now enriching its third generation of DeVoses. And at Grand Valley State University, I walked along the Edgar D. Prince promenade, named for Betsy’s father, who made his fortune manufacturing dashboard cupholders and lighted visor mirrors, and whose rabid anti-New Deal vision his daughter is so successfully carrying out today.
I was headed to Grand Valley’s charter schools office, part of the powerful nexus of DeVos money, charter schools and lobbyists that is increasingly determining the future of Detroit’s schools, and by extension, the city itself. This was to be my very last interview, and I’d been tempted to cancel it. My meeting with the Michigan Association of Public School Academies earlier in my trip had been testy to the point of acrimony, and on this, the eighth day of my adventure, I knew that my good behavior reserves were running dangerously low. Tim Wood, who oversees Grand Valley’s charter schools office, and Rob Kimball, the deputy director, would be my 42nd and 43rd interviews. But charter authorizers play a huge role in Michigan’s choice landscape, and Grand Valley is the state’s largest, having authorized 73 schools serving 33,000 students. Besides, I’d never met an actual authorizer before.
We talked for almost an hour and a half. They made the case that Michigan’s regulatory woes have been overstated, and that it’s time to leave behind the assumption that *for-profit* is bad; more than half of their schools are part of the for-profit National Heritage Academies network. While there were a few tense moments, like when Kimball, who oversees Grand Valley’s Detroit *portfolio,* alleged that they are stakeholders in the city because they maintain an office there, these were the exception. The conversation was far more candid than I’d expected; at one point Kimball stated that charter expansion has brought the Detroit Public Schools to its knees. We discussed Betsy DeVos only briefly. Wood said that he was excited about her appointment; that she’s thought about children most of her career. *It’s inaccurate to say that she wants to hurt public schools,* he said. *She likes schools that serve kids well.*
I sensed no particular conviction behind his words, though, and frankly I was tired of talking about Betsy DeVos, so I let it drop. After a while, we just chatted. I told them about where I’d been and who I’d talked to, and that I’d just received an alert from my father, an expert on all subjects, urging me to look into the great Grand Rapids furniture strike of 1911. I was gathering up my things to go when Kimball asked me why it is that Democrats in Michigan are opposed to charter expansion, unlike in so many other states where the cause is bipartisan.
I told him what I’d been hearing all week. That in Michigan it is far more obvious that the Democrats themselves are the ultimate target of the effort to undermine public education. I resisted the urge to editorialize on why I think DeVos represents such a threat to a bipartisan education reform agenda that has bound together Republicans who’d like to crush unions with Democrats who want to weaken them *for the right reasons.* Or that characterizing DeVos as *anti-accountability* misses how eagerly she and her allies embraced Obama’s education reforms when they realized they’d just been given new tools with which to go after public schools and their teachers.
*Kneecapping the unions isn’t the ultimate goal,* I said. *They want to take out the teachers unions because they provide the foot soldiers that get Democrats elected. This is about making Michigan a red state.*
Kimball looked genuinely startled. Outside it had started to snow and I hoped it wasn’t the beginning of the ice storm that was supposed to sweep across the Upper Midwest; I was flying home in the morning.
*Can’t we just find new foot soldiers?* Kimball asked.
I didn’t have an answer. I’m not sure anyone does.
My deep appreciation to everyone who chipped in to make my Michigan reporting trip a reality. If you missed your chance to donate, great news: it’s not too late! Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. And spoiler: it’s possible that I may be writing a book 🙂