Betsy DeVos just bought herself a nice little cabinet position. On Tuesday afternoon, most Senate Republicans – all but Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski – voted to confirm the billionaire Amway heiress as secretary of education.
It cost her $115,000 in personal donations to sitting Republican senators; $950,000 more has flowed in from the DeVos family over the last three-and-a-half decades. And another $8.3 million from the DeVoses has gone to Republican super PACs in the last two election cycles alone. Not cheap! But it got the job done.
And no one should expect her family’s financial manipulation of Republican senators to stop there. In fact, if what the DeVoses have done in Michigan is any indication, she and her family are likely just getting started trying to buy Republican support for their radical agenda.
“If [the DeVoses] do nationally what they did here, they’ll literally be putting a financial gun to the heads of Republicans to go along with expansion of for-profit and private schools and voucher-type systems, irrespective of educational benefits,” says John Austin, a member of Michigan’s education board for the last 16 years and its president for the past six. “That’s what they’ve done here, to ensure that the legislature supports [their goals]: They’ve threatened to primary, they’ve rewarded those who go along with their expansion without quality control on cyber [schools] and charters. That’s how they use their money.”
Betsy DeVos – as many supporters of public schools have stressed – never attended, worked for or sent her children to public schools. Most of her relevant experience has been in destroying the public school system in her home state, and particularly in Detroit.
In Michigan, she and her husband were dedicated crusaders for school choice, which doesn’t sound like such a bad thing until you get into the details of what their political activism accomplished.
Once upon a time, Michigan had a cap on the number of charter and online-only schools that could exist in the state. The DeVoses donated to Republicans in the state legislature – or, alternately, bankrolled primary opponents to run against those Republicans who resisted – with the express purpose of getting those caps lifted.
The result, according to Austin, has been a death spiral for the state’s public schools. There’s been an explosion of unregulated charter and cyber schools, which in turn drain taxpayer money from public schools. Less money for public-school teachers and programs like tutoring, art and music makes those schools less desirable, and drives more students into the terrible (in terms of educational outcomes) charter and cyber schools.
The DeVoses have used these tactics again and again. Just last year, when the state legislature was considering imposing some oversight measures on charter schools, the DeVoses rewarded those Republicans who reversed their positions – who went from supporting oversight to opposing it – with $1.45 million in donations over just seven days immediately following the vote.
In Detroit, where the DeVoses have focused much of their energy over the past several years, the majority of students are now attending “this crazy landscape of mostly bad-quality charters that have been allowed,” leaving just 40 percent in Detroit Public Schools. The state’s education ranking has plummeted, from 13th in 2003 to 45th in 2016; it’s projected to fall even further, to 49th, without major changes before 2030.
The DeVoses have done “tremendous damage to learning outcomes,” Austin says, “particularly for poor and minority kids in Michigan.”
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