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Another “West Michigan Nice” response: GR Police Chief says we need more cops on anniversary of black youth who were held at gunpoint by the GRPD

March 23, 2018

Yesterday, MLive ran a story 1 year after Grand Rapids Police officers held 5 black youth at gunpoint, because they “fit the description” of someone who had a gun in their backpack. 

The comments from the youth was moving to read. It was also instructive, because they basically said that they Do Not Trust the Cops. This response is completely understandable, because of the trauma these kids experienced being held at gunpoint, but it is also reflective of a larger experience of mistrust between black communities and  the police. In fact, this experience that black people has towards law enforcement dates back to the days of slavery, where policing was born in the US.

However, what was more revealing than the mistrust of police by black youth, was the comments from Grand Rapids Police Chief Rahinsky.

Rahinsky said:

  • The cops responded appropriately when they held these 5 black youth at gunpoint.
  • What cops need to do is play basketball with these kids to try to avoid these situations in the future.
  • And, that in a perfect world, he would have more officers.

In other words, that practice of holding black youth at gunpoint will continue and that they need more cops. Rahinsky also conveniently puts the focus back on “bad” youth when he said, “Unfortunately, we live in a culture where it’s not uncommon to take a handgun off of a child.”

In addition, the head of the GRPD fails to truly address the lack of trust that black people have with cops, almost dismissing this by suggesting that if he had more officers who could play basketball with these kids, things would be all good.

This flies in the face of what black people have been saying for decades about cops, which is in intricate part of the platform of the Movement for Black Lives, reflected here on the right. In Grand Rapids more cops playing basketball with black youth is just another “West Michigan Nice” response. 

Remembering Oscar Romero, the gift of accompaniment and Grand Rapids

March 22, 2018

On Saturday, it will be 38 years since Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down while saying mass in a small chapel in San Salvador. A Salvadoran soldier who was the graduate of the US Army School of the Americas, it was revealed later, killed Romero.

There has been much written about Romero since his assassination and the factors that led to his eventual death. However, it is important to note that Romero wasn’t always a radical priest or a proponent of Liberation Theology.

Before Romero was chosen as the new Archbishop of El Salvador, he was a quiet and conservative bishop. Romero was even a member of the Opus Dei, a movement within the Catholic Church that began in Spain in the early part of the 20th century and supported the dictatorship of Franco.

However, Romero was a close friend of Fr. Rutillio Grande, a priest in one of El Salvador’s rural communities. Grande was a proponent of Liberation Theology and when he was assassinated for serving the poor and challenging the wealthy oligarchy in El Salvador, Romero began to see the light. This moment of transformation is what Jesuit scholar Jon Sobrino called “Rutillio’s Miracle,” because it was the catalyst that transformed Romero into the Voice of the Voiceless.

Quickly Romero began to not only speak out on behalf of the poor, he began acting in such a way that soon thousands of Salvadorans would come to call him simply “Monsignor.” Romero turned the facilities at the cathedral into a space for people to come for relief, food and medical assistance. Romero also began hearing the stories of countless Salvadorans who told him how their family members were disappeared, tortured and killed.

Romero then began to challenge the power structure in El Salvador, mostly through his Sunday sermons and his weekly radio broadcast. Romero understood all to well that the poverty and violence that people endured was because of the unjust economic power that the country’s wealthy possessed.

Romero also understood that the political violence that was terrorizing the country’s poor and working class people was a direct result of US military aid to El Salvador. Five weeks before Romero was assassinated he wrote a letter to then US President Jimmy Carter. He asked Carter that if the US really wanted to support justice in El Salvador that the US should stop sending weapons to his country and that the US should not directly intervene in any way into the political, economic, military or diplomatic affairs of El Salvador.

Noam Chomsky writes in the book Manufacturing Consent, that after Romero sent the letter to Carter, the Carter administration put pressure on the Vatican to try and curb the activities of the archbishop.

Romero also understood that many of the foot soldiers in the Salvadoran military were poor people who had been forced into the army. The day before Romero was assassinated he made a special appeal to the soldiers in El Salvador to not kill their fellow Salvadorans. Romero ended his sermon with these words:

We want the government to seriously consider that reforms mean nothing when they come bathed in so much blood. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: Cease the repression!

Here is a video with audio of Romero during his last sermon.

Accompanying those in the struggle for justice

According to Staughton Lynd’s book, Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, Salvadoran Archbishop was the first person to use the term accompaniment. Romero practiced accompaniment in two important ways.

First, the Salvadoran Archbishop practiced accompaniment by speaking out against injustice. Romero did spoke out against the injustice in El Salvador, because that is what the people told him to do.

Shortly after Fr. Rutillio Grande was assassinate in 1977, Romero defied church authorities by hosting a singular mass for Fr. Grande and the two others murdered with him.

In his Third Pastoral Letter as Archbishop, Romero stated, “The most acute form in which violence appears in Latin America, is structural, or institutionalized violence, in which the socioeconomic and political structures operate to the benefit of a minority with the result that the majority of people are deprived of the necessities of life.” This is why in the same pastoral letter, Romero denounces Capitalism.

However, the second and most important form of accompaniment that Romero practiced, was walking with the people. Romero made it a point to visit communities all over El Salvador, to listen to them and to learn from them in their struggle.

Eventually, people began coming to the Archdiocese office in wave after wave to talk with Monsenor Romero. In late 1977, Romero turned the church office and courtyard into a place where people could come share their stories, get food and medical attention Romero also used this opportunity to document the disappearances, torture and murder of those who sought out his company. In addition, Romero arraigned for housing for those who had been displaced by the military repression and violence. In many ways, what the Salvadoran Archbishop had done was to offer Sanctuary for the people of El Salvador.

Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician and organizer engaged in accompaniment work in Haiti once wrote a description of what accompaniment work looked like:

There’s an element of mystery, of openness, in accompaniment. I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll keep you company and share your fate for a while. And by a while, I don’t mean a little while. Accompaniment is much more about sticking with a task until its deemed completed by the person or people being accompanied, not those doing the accompaniment.

Monsenor Romero understood this notion of staying with those he was accompanying, sharing their fate, even if that meant death.

Accompaniment in Grand Rapids

As we wrote on Tuesday, the UCC Church in Wyoming, Michigan, Joy Like a River, is now a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. 

This is a clear form of accompaniment. In fact, Rev. Justo Gonzalez, used that terminology during his address to those present during the Press Conference on Tuesday. Doing sanctuary work is not about helping people, it is about being in solidarity with people who are being targeted by state repression.

There are other forms of accompaniment being offer in Grand Rapids, such as the work of the GR Rapid Response to ICE project, where people who have been trained attempt to prevent ICE from arresting and detaining immigrants, as well as providing financial, legal, material and emotional support for immigrants impacted by ICE. For those wanting to get involved, like their Facebook page and find out when the next training is. 

In fact, the GR Rapid Response to ICE group is hosting a screening of a documentary about Monsenor Romero, tonight at Taqueria Rincon. You can get details at this link

Church in Wyoming, MI declares itself a Sanctuary for those Targeted by ICE

March 20, 2018

Earlier today, a United Church of Christ, in Wyoming, Michigan declared itself a Sanctuary Church in response to the ongoing repression of immigrants, especially those that are undocumented.

The Rev. Justo Gonzalez stated:

Immigrants always have been and will be welcome here! The United Church of Christ (UCC) is an Immigrant Welcoming Church.  IUC Ministerios Ríos de Agua Viva / Joy Like a River UCC is rooted in Love and Extravagant Welcome for all of God’s Creation. It is with Holy Boldness that we declare ourselves the first and only Sanctuary Church in the Grand Rapids Metropolitan area. 

We are clear, no matter who you are or where you have been on life’s journey, you will welcome here. Within this church anyone who needs it will find a warm welcome in a Safe and Sacred Space. We do not care about your immigration status. We care about you.  Let it be known that this Community of Faith celebrates diversity, experiences immigrants as a blessing, and will always uplift the dignity and worth of God’s creation.

Let it also be known that ICE, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol will not be allowed to enter God’s house.  Holy Ground is Sacred. They can choose to break down our doors and forcibly enter but we will NEVER allow them access into this Safe and Sacred Ground known as the Church. 

Moreover, the war of Immigrants must end immediately.  The Church cannot stand in silence as the Trump Administration unleashes ICE in our neighborhoods, disrupts our communities, profiles Black, Brown and Asian citizens and immigrants. We will not stand for the profiling of our Muslim and other Communities of Faith. A violation on any of us is a violation of all of us.”

Rev. Gonzalez went on to say, “ICE can come to this church, but they cannot enter. If they break the doors down, we will film them taking our brothers and sisters and expose them for for engaging in this type of repression.”

This is the first time that an organization has declared itself a sanctuary in the Grand Rapids area, since the Koinonia House did it in 1986

Rev. Gonzalez was joined by a whole litany of people during the declaration made today, with several of the people standing with him invited to share a few thoughts about the importance of this work.

Rev. Grey, who is also a UCC Pastor, simply wanted to share some data, which illustrated how urgent this issue is. She stated that since the Trump administration took office, there have been 14,000 administrative arrests in the US of immigrants every month.

Gema Lowe, with Movimiento Cosecha GR, an immigrant led movement, shared the principles of her group by reading a statement, which stated in part that they are fighting for dignity, respect and permanent protection for all immigrants. Lowe also invited everyone in attendance to participate in the 4 day strike they are planning in late April through May 1st. They are asking people not to work, not to shop and to join them for several actions listed below.

There were two DACA students who also spoke during the Sanctuary announcement. Danny Caracheo, said that the US is not only a nation made up of immigrants, but that it is made up of people who are rebels.

The Rev. Colleen Squires, a Unitarian Pastor, said, “We can either build a wall or a longer table. My community choses to build a longer table to welcome everyone to sit at.

The Reverend Doug Van Doran, Pastor, Plymouth United Church of Christ, states, “Immigrants are our part of our American family. Dreamers are our children. This is their home, the land they know. We need to be certain that this is a land where DREAMS COME TRUE and Justice for Immigrants reigns and not where nightmares are inflicted.”

Richard Kessler, an immigration lawyer who has been practicing for 37 years, said that the current repression against immigrants might be the worst he has ever seen. “The Trump administration has a zero tolerance policy against immigrant. We need to have zero tolerance for ICE repression. We need to have zero tolerance for separating families. We need to have zero tolerance for the racism behind the federal government’s immigration policy.

Lastly, Rev. Traci Blackmon, also with the UCC, shared her appreciation for what was happening in Grand Rapids. She shared a beautiful interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan during her comments. At the end of her comments she ten said, “There is not a wall so high that we can’t tear down.

For those who are interested in supporting the new sanctuary church, you can contact Reverend Justo González, II at 716-989-9207, cell or

Fifteen things about the 15th Anniversary of the US Invasion/Occupation of Iraq

March 18, 2018

In some ways it is hard to believe that 15 years has already passed, since the US militarily invaded and occupied Iraq. Fifteen years ago there was non-stop coverage of the invasion and occupation, but Iraq has faded from the news cycle for years now and is generally viewed as an outpost for the terrorist organization known as ISIS.

US news media generally fails to provide adequate contextual information about US foreign policy and for most Americans Iraq continues to be framed through whatever the US State Department has to say about it.

Here are fifteen things we think are important to know about the US and Iraq over the past 100 years.

  1. Iraq was essentially a creation of European Colonialism, with the British drawing the borders and suppressing numerous attempts for Arab and Kurdish self-determination throughout most of the first half of the twentieth century.
  2. European and US interest in Iraq has always been about oil, especially after WWII, when the US realized that in order to expand it’s global dominance, they needed to secure Iraq’s oil and other oil reserves in the region. This reliance on and control of Middle Eastern oil has been the formal policy of the US since WWII, as is well documented in the film Blood and Oil, featuring historian and author Michael Klare. 
  3. Beginning in the late 1950s, the CIA began to support the Ba’athist Party, in order to destabilize the region enough that would benefit US interests. This support of the Ba’athists, included support for Saddam Hussein.
  4. The US was providing weapons to both Iran and Iraq, during the war between those two countries that lasted for most of the 1980s. The US even supplied Iraq with chemical weapons that were used against Iran and the Kurds. Declassified US documents show that in 1983, Donald Rumsfeld was the Reagan Administration’s connection to supply WMDs to Iraq. 
  5. The US War in the Persian Gulf was an opportunity for the US to flex it’s military muscles at a time when the Soviet Union was imploding (1990-91). The US destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure, killed thousands of Iraqis through aerial bombing and used Depleted Uranium in the bombs, which has resulted in death and sickness for Iraqis and US soldiers who fought in that imperialist war.
  6. After the Gulf War, the US imposed the harshest sanctions on any country ever, resulting in the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi children between 1991 and 1998 (during the Clinton Administration). While being interviewed on 60 Minutes, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says 500,000 dead Iraqi Children was “worth it.”

  7. In the lead up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the US government lied about Iraq’s WMDs. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell has since admitted that the administration lied about this, especially during the Powell’s February 5th, 2003 presentation before the UN Security Council. See declassified documents
  8. The US Invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003 and it’s ongoing occupation resulted in at least 1 million dead Iraqis through 2008, even though that number was usually suppressed in the US media. However, the number is now estimated to be 2.4 million dead Iraqis
  9. The US government used the invasion/occupation of Iraq to rewrite the Iraqi Constitution, allowing multination corporations and oil companies free reign to exploit Iraq’s resources. See Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.
  10. The US Media coverage of the invasion/occupation primarily echoed the government’s position, with little critical inquiry into US policy. The Center for Public Integrity put together a list of 935 lies by the Bush administration about the war.  GRIID also created a video and a report about Grand Rapids media coverage of the early months of the US invasion/occupation of Iraq.
  11. There was a tremendous amount of anti-war organizing against the US invasion/occupation of Iraq from 2002 – 2008. There were numerous groups involved, some more moderate and some more radical. For a great summary of the anti-war organizing see what Media Mouse wrote in 2008.  Here is video of an anti-Iraq war protest at the home of Congressman Ehlers. 
  12. The US invasion/occupation of Iraq provided the US to increase it’s military presence in the region and the construction of numerous US military bases in Iraq for geo-political and resource extraction purposes.
  13. The US invasion/occupation of Iraq saw the largest use of private mercenary forces, like Dyncorp and Blackwater, which was founded by Erik Prince, the brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Blackwater won millions of dollars in US contracts for its mercenary efforts in Iraq, which involved the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians. Erik Prince was never indicted for those war crimes.
  14. The cost of the US invasion/occupation of Iraq is ongoing. According to the National Priorities Project, the US invasion/occupation of Iraq has cost over $800 billion to US taxpayers. Imagine what people could do with that amount of money if it went for things like affordable housing, health care, education, etc.
  15. The current destabilization in Iraq is often laid at the feet of ISIS. However, as longtime journalist Patrick Cockburn, author of the book, The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East, the US was in many ways responsible for the creation of ISIS. Here is an excellent interview with Cockburn. In addition, the real culprit of Iraq’s destabilization and ongoing violence is rooted in the US military invasion/occupation that has devastated the country. The Bush administration began a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 2008, which continued under the Obama administration with withdrawal of US troops not completed until the end of 2011. However, the SOFA agreement did not end the use of private military contractors, which has continued in Iraq.

The day after her 60 Minutes Interview, Betsy DeVos was right back at it advocating for Neoliberal education policies at the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum

March 15, 2018

On Monday, March 12, the day after 60 Minutes aired an interview with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, she spoke briefly at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum. 

You can read Betsy’s comments here, which continues what she has been saying over the past year, which is to push for Neoliberal Education School policies.

Now, the American Enterprise Institute is one of the most powerful right-wing think tanks in the US and has been supportive of the larger neoliberal agenda: the transfer of public funds to the private sector, dismissing Climate Change, opposing an increase in the federal minimum wage, supporting US wars abroad and opposing any regulation of the economy. 

Betsy DeVos did sit on the board of directors for the American Enterprise Institute, until the end of 2016, but now that she is part of the federal government, her husband, Dick DeVos has taken her seat at the table

It is rare to actually read comments from the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum, since the event is private. In fact, most of the people who attend the event are billionaires and millionaires, along with some politicians who embrace the AEI mission.

The event is so private, that the American Enterprise Institute’s own website doesn’t even mention forum and the only access to the forum electronically is by invitation, as is shown at this link

Whatever one thinks about how the 60 Minutes interview with Betsy DeVos, it is clear that she is going to continue to address audiences that share her world view, the world view of the rich and powerful.

Does Doug DeVos and the West Michigan Policy Forum really want to change the prison system in Michigan?

March 14, 2018

We have been monitoring the West Michigan Policy Reform (WMPF) group, ever since it came into being in 2008.

This group is made up of the West Michigan power structure, like the DeVos family, Peter Seechia, John Kennedy, Michael Jandernoa and other CEOs and politicians that have been supporting and lobbying on state policies since they were founded in 2008. 

The West Michigan Policy Reform has already been instrumental in pushing through state policy that benefits businesses on taxes, they were a force in making Michigan a Right to Work state, pushing for education policies that expand Charter Schools and last year got legislation passed to eliminate traditional public sector employees and public teacher pensions.

Now the group is taking on what they refer to as Criminal Justice Reform.

Over the past several weeks, the West Michigan Policy Forum has been posting pieces on their Facebook page, pushing what they name as criminal justice reform, with posts about recidivism in Michigan’s prison population, juvenile justice and a letter from Doug DeVos on behalf of the of the WMPF.  

DeVos wrote his letter that was published in the Grand Rapids Grand Rapids Business Journal on March 9.  DeVos begins his “letter” by stating:

More than a decade ago, law enforcement leaders supported smart criminal justice reform because they recognized that over-incarceration would not make Michigan safer. Despite these improvements, Michigan still incarcerates more people, keeps inmates longer and spends significantly more money on corrections than our neighboring Midwest states. One out of every five taxpayer dollars goes toward corrections — a proportion of Michigan’s general fund budget nearly twice that of the next highest spending state.

So, does this mean that Doug DeVos and the West Michigan Policy Forum are now interesting in dismantling mass incarceration? Hardly.

What DeVos goes on to say in his letter, is to promote specific legislation by Republican  Representatives Klint Kesto and Hank Vaupel. DeVos never identifies this legislation, which is House Bill 5234. This legislation does provide county sheriff’s with the ability to provide medical treatment to inmates who are elderly or struggling with mental health issues.

This sounds like a humane thing to do, but why would the West Michigan Policy Forum being championing it? Again, Doug DeVos states:

While there has been discussion of business support of reform to fill jobs, the need for reform is much bigger than any economic impact. To ensure safety, we must keep those who need to be restrained in prison. However, more than 80 percent of Michigan inmates, or more than 32,000 of the current prison population, will be released and re-enter our local communities. For those who have broken the law and have faced appropriate accountability, we have a moral responsibility to create real opportunity for them. We should help them find confidence, meaningful work to support themselves and their families, rebuild lives and contribute to the well-being of our community.

Again, this sounds like a very humane approach, but something seems missing. I believe that this is really about the West Michigan Policy Forum wanting to have access to laborers, as DeVos admits in the above statement. In addition, the message of criminal justice reform also plays well with liberal and progressives.

However, this seemingly liberal legislative push by the West Michigan Policy Forum is a reform that will benefit business interests, plus it is simply a reform. In other words, there is no indication that the WMPF is now going to take on the issue of mass incarceration by dismantling it.

The West Michigan Policy Forum is NOT going to be advocating for the end of police surveillance of the black and latinx communities, they are NOT going to be calling for an end to bail money, they are NOT going to be calling for the end of the privatization of prisons and prison services, they are NOT going to be calling for the end of criminal history to determine eligibility for housing, education, licenses, voting, loans, employment, and other services and needs, they are NOT going to be calling for an end to ICE raids, they are NOT calling for changes in the condition of jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities or immigration detention and they are NOT going to be calling for the end of capital punishment.

These ARE the kind of actions that groups like the Movement for Black Lives are calling for across the country, along with other black organizations and immigrant-led movements. This is the kind of platform we need to support and to embrace, NOT the weak, reformist legislation that the West Michigan Policy Forum is pushing. 

Betsy DeVos Watch: Deconstructing the 60 minutes Interview

March 13, 2018

The following interview by 60 Minutes with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, aired on Sunday, March 11, 2018.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a devout Christian grandmother from Michigan — who has spent most of her life trying to improve the quality of education for poor kids. So how in the world did she become one of the most hated members of the Trump Cabinet? [How media people frame things is important. Lesley Stahl states as a matter of fact that Betsy DeVos has spent most of her life trying to improve the quality of education for poor kids, yet there is no evidence presented to substantiate this claim.]

She is dedicated to promoting school choice [School choice is code for undermining public education and promoting charter and private schools.] but her critics say she really wants to privatize the public school system that she once called, quote, “a dead end.”

Now, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, her portfolio is expanding. Monday, President Trump is expected to appoint her as head of a new commission on school safety charged with developing policies to prevent school violence.

Betsy DeVos visited the school in Florida on Wednesday, but like almost everywhere else she goes, she faced criticism. Some of the students sent out angry tweets: “You came to our school just for publicity and avoided our questions.” “Betsy DeVos came to my school, talked to three people, and pet a dog.” Many of the students are frustrated at the administration for talking about school safety, but not acting. 

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.

Betsy DeVos: They want a variety of things. They want solutions.

Lesley Stahl: Do you think that teachers should have guns in the classroom?

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 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 issue in a different way. [When DeVos and others use the claim that it is up to state and communities to make these decisions, they are really echoing talking points from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN), both of which are funding by the Koch Brothers.] 

Lesley Stahl: Do you see yourself as a leader in this– in this subject? And what kind of ideas will you be promoting?

Betsy DeVos: I have actually asked to head up a task force that will really look at what states are doing.  See there are a lot of states that are addressing these issues in very cohesive and coherent ways.

Lesley Stahl: Do you feel a sense of urgency?

Betsy DeVos: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: ‘Cause this sounds like talking. Instead of acting.

Betsy DeVos: No, there is a sense of urgency indeed.

The reason Betsy DeVos wanted to be secretary of education was so she could promote school choice, offering parents options other than traditional public schools – where 90 percent of kids go. She has proposed massive cuts in public education funding and wants to shift billions to alternative players like private, parochial and charter schools. [This is an accurate statement, considering what the budget was in 2018 and what is being proposed for in 2019.] 

Betsy DeVos: We have invested billions and billions and billions of dollars from the federal level And we have seen zero results.

Lesley Stahl: But that really isn’t true. Test scores have gone up over the last 25 years. So why do you keep saying nothing’s been accomplished? [Challenging question that should be asked to all politicians.]

Betsy DeVos: Well actually, test scores vis-à-vis the rest of the world have not gone up. And we have continued to be middle of the pack at best. That’s just not acceptable.

Lesley Stahl: No it’s not acceptable. But it’s better than it was. That’s the point. You don’t acknowledge that things have gotten better. You won’t acknowledge that, over the–

Betsy DeVos: But I don’t think they have for too many kids. We’ve stagnated

Lesley Stahl: Okay, so there’s the big argument. So what can be done about that?

Betsy DeVos: What can be done about that is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids. Any family that has the economic means and the power to make choices is doing so for their children. Families that don’t have the power, that can’t decide: “I’m gonna move from this apartment in downtown whatever to the suburb where I think the school is gonna be better for my child” if they don’t have that choice – and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there. I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices. We need all parents to have those choices. [If Secretary DeVos wants all parents to have a choice to move and put their kids in a better school, she should advocate for making the minimum wage $15 an hour, change the tax system to divert more money from the rich and stop supporting the federal government’s massive subsidies to corporations, while reducing public funding for education and other social services. However, advocating for parents in this way is completely counter to the neoliberal economic policies that the US government promotes and that benefits members of the capitalist class, like the DeVos Family.]

Question is: does her solution work? Do choice schools perform better than public schools? Naturally — there are conflicting studies. It’s complicated.

But DeVos spends a lot of time showcasing choice schools like Cold Spring Elementary, a public school in Indianapolis – that was allowed to get rid of the local teachers’ union and create an innovative curriculum.

But when parents choose these options, taxpayer funds follow the child and that means that the public school left behind can end up with less money.

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

Betsy DeVos: Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in school– school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.

Lesley Stahl: Okay. But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working? What about those kids?

Betsy DeVos: 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. [No specific study is cited to verify this claim. There are several studies cited in a Center for Media & Democracy piece from 2017, linked here.

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

Betsy DeVos: Michi–Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.

Lesley Stahl: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

Betsy DeVos: I don’t know. Overall, I– I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.

Lesley Stahl: The whole state is not doing well.

Betsy DeVos: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this– the students are doing well and– [For all the millions of dollars DeVos and her family invested in the Great Lakes Education Project, it has not resulted in public education improving in Michigan.]

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.

Betsy DeVos: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them. [Avoiding the question.]

Lesley Stahl: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.

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?

Betsy DeVos: I have not– I have not– I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming. [An important admission.]

Lesley Stahl: Maybe you should.

Betsy DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

DeVos is the only Cabinet secretary protected by a squad of U.S. Marshals because she’s gotten death threats. She’s frequently met by protesters who accuse her of pushing an elitist agenda.

She often manages to offend, as when she called historically black colleges and universities “pioneers” of “school choice” – as though they had a choice.

At this commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, students booed and turned their backs to her.

Lesley Stahl: Why have you become, people say, the most hated Cabinet secretary?  

Betsy DeVos: I’m not so sure exactly how that happened. But I think there are a lot of really powerful forces allied against change. [Again, to evidence presented or naming specific forces allied against change.]

Lesley Stahl: Does it hurt?

Betsy DeVos: Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does. Again, I think– I think–

Lesley Stahl: Do you ever say–

Betsy DeVos:  –I’m more misunderstood than anything.

Some of the criticism, she feels, is unfair, especially when it involves her wealth. She faced a hostile question about it during a speech at Harvard last year.

Harvard Question: So you’re a billionaire with lots and lots of investments. And the so-called school choice movement is a way to open the floodgates for corporate interests to make money off the backs of students. How much do you expect your net worth to increase as a result of your policy choices? [For a detailed account of Betsy DeVos’ investments, go to this link.]

Moderator: You can choose not to answer that secretary.

Among President Trump’s cabinet of moguls and titans, DeVos is the richest: she grew up wealthy and married even wealthier. In their hometown of Grand Rapids, the DeVoses have been exceedingly charitable, their name decorates buildings like the civic center and children’s hospital. [For a more complete critique of the DeVos Family impact in Grand Rapids/West Michigan, see our DeVos Family Reader.] 

At her bruising confirmation hearing, she was grilled about her wealth and lack of experience. She’s been an advocate, not an educator.   

Lesley Stahl: What happened there?

Betsy DeVos: I’ve not had a root canal, but I can imagine that a root canal might be more pleasant than that was.

Lesley Stahl: So you’ve been on the job now over a year. What have you done that you’re most proud of?

Betsy DeVos: Yeah. We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.

By overreach she means regulations. And like most of President Trump’s cabinet, DeVos is a devoted de-regulator. Part of her job as Secretary of Education is overseeing guidelines that protect the civil rights of students.

Just days after being confirmed, she rescinded a guideline implemented under President Obama that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice – sparking even more protests.

She is now considering scrapping the Obama-era “guidance on how to identify, avoid and remedy discriminatory discipline,” which aims to prevent schools from punishing students of color more harshly than their white classmates.

Betsy DeVos: We are studying that rule. We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. And all students means all students. [This statement is in direct conflict with the 2018 federal education budget cuts, which disproportionately impact students of color. The de-regulation around civil rights within education also conflicts with DeVos’ claim to create a safe space for all students.] 

Lesley Stahl: Yeah but let’s say there’s a disruption in the classroom and a bunch of whites kids are disruptive and they get punished, you know, go see the principal, but the black kids are, you know, they call in the cops. I mean, that’s the issue: who and how the kids who disrupt are being punished.

Betsy DeVos: Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids. And–

Lesley Stahl: Well, no. That– it’s not.

Betsy DeVos: –it does come down to individual kids. And–often comes down to– I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning. [Here, the Secretary of Education ignores decades of discrimination against African American students within the education system. It’s as if she was saying, “All student lives matter,” which is a ridiculously false notion that makes black student lives invisible. See our post Betsy DeVos and White Savior Politics  and see the report, DeVos Watch Year One.

Lesley Stahl: Do you see this disproportion in discipline for the same infraction as institutional racism?

Betsy DeVos: We’re studying it carefully. And are committed to making sure students have opportunity to learn in safe and nurturing environments. [Again, avoiding the question about institutional racism.]

While this regulation is under review, she has already drawn fire for changing Title IX guidelines on handling sexual assault on college campuses. She’s allowing colleges to require stronger evidence from accusers, and give the accused a greater benefit of the doubt. [See our post, Fake Sympathy from DeVos on MSU victims, while undermining the existing Title IX protections against sexual assault.] 

Lesley Stahl: Are you in any way, do you think, suggesting that the number of false accusations are as high as the number of actual rapes or assaults?

Betsy DeVos: Well, one sexual assault is one too many, and one falsely accused individual is one too many.

Lesley Stahl: Yeah, but are they the same?

Betsy DeVos: I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.

Lesley Stahl: The Me-Too Movement has come along at the same time. This is all feeding into it. We’re not talking about colleges anymore. We’re talking about men in positions of power in industry and government. Have you ever had an issue?

Betsy DeVos: I can recall a number of moments in the past– several decades ago that I think today would just be viewed as unacceptable. Yeah.

It’s been an unlikely journey and balancing act for grandmother Betsy DeVos, from her sheltered life in Michigan – to her life now as a lightning rod in Washington. [Not sure this is a fair comment, since Betsy DeVos has not been sheltered, as she was the head of the GOP in Michigan for years and active in numerous national groups and campaigns to undermine public education around the country. See the article Betsy DeVos’ Holy War.