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Why is the GRPS Superintendent praising Betsy DeVos as Trump’s choice for Education Secretary?

November 28, 2016

Last Wednesday, in an article that appeared on MLive about Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public School district, endorsed and even praised Betsy DeVos as Trump’s choice for Education Secretary. Here is part of what that MLive article stated:screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-12-09-45-am

Neal says she has worked closely with DeVos since she began her job five years ago. The relationship started with DeVos asking for a meeting.

“She wanted to know what I was going to do, what was my plan for the children in the district,” said Neal. “I appreciated her asking the question. She was part of the transformation that we have done in the district.”

When Neal said she needed the expertise of a superintendent coach, DeVos picked up the tab, and she continues to send notes of encouragement.

The DeVos clan, especially Amway President Doug DeVos and his wife, Maria, have channeled millions from their foundations to programs that align with Neal’s goals.

Neal acknowledges the toll Michigan’s school of choice policy has taken on urban school districts like her own over the past 22 years when the lawmakers set it in motion with school finance reform in 1994.

“It has been hurt by choice (but) we have also become a much stronger district and able to compete,” Neal said.screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-3-57-23-am

Over the past two decades, the district has lost 8,000 students, closed 35 buildings, eliminated 1000 positions and cut more than $100 million from the budget, according to the district’s spokesman John Helmholdt.

Under Neal, the district’s graduation rates have climbed and chronic absenteeism have dropped, Helmholdt added, although they’re still below state averages.

Neal thinks DeVos can hold up GRPS as a model of what can be done at other struggling districts.

“I’m really excited for the children across the nation,” Neal said. “She has been a wonderful supporter of GRPS and our transition plan. She knows education. She knows what it is going to take in order for our kids to be helped.”

Some have questioned DeVos family involvement in the district and public education in general since they have educated their children in privately-funded Christian schools.

Neal sees the politically conservative family’s focus on education as their commitment to the “greater social good.”

The praise that Teresa Weatherall Neal gives to Betsy DeVos should should raise red flags for anyone who care about public education in Grand Rapids. There are several statements in the MLive article that should tells us something about the Grand Rapids Public Schools, the role of the DeVos family and the GRPS and the programs that align with GRPS that are supported by the DeVos family and the rest of the local power structure.screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-4-15-08-am

However, it is first important to acknowledge that the Grand Rapids Public Schools have been facing tremendous adversity for decades. Some of the main causes of this adversity has been the decades long White Flight, where white families moved out of the district or have chosen to send their kids to other schools. Another cause has been the state-level systematic defunding of local school districts, which the DeVos family has contributed immensely by getting legislators in Lansing that promote their education policies. Lastly, the lack of school funding, coupled with the poverty-level income of many families in the Grand Rapids Public School district has laid the ground work for the privatization of education that Betsy DeVos champions.

There was an acknowledgement in the MLive article that the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed directly to the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Based on the 990 documents available, the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed money to the GRPS and programs that align with the school district.

The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation contributed between 2012 – 2014 contributed $1,509,120 directly to the Grand Rapids Public Schools. If you add the money they contributed to the University Prep Academy, located on South Division, the President of Amway and his wife contributed $550,000 during the same 3-year period.photo

Then there are programs that align with the GRPS, such as the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, which provides grants to the GRPS. The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed $1,496,413 to the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. Maria DeVos also just happens to sit on the board of this foundation. 

The Grand Rapids Initiative for Leadership (GRIL) is a faith-based youth leadership development program that offers trainings through the GRPS at both Union High School and Ottawa Hills High School. This program is really an offshoot of the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative and is one of the main partners in the GRIL. Doug and Maria DeVos contributed $58,000 between 2012 – 2014 to the Grand Rapids Initiative for Leadership. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation also gave $20,000 between 2012 – 2013.

Another faith-based initiative is the Believe 2 Become program, which works directly with the Grand Rapids Public Schools. There is no direct connection that we could find to the DeVos family, but many of the other programs the DeVos family supports are partners of this project.ecp_firststeps_kidsarekentcotoppriority-outdoor

A few other projects, which align with the goals of the GRPS, are First Steps Kent and Talent 2025. First Steps Kent provides resources for early childhood efforts in Kent County. The Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation is one of the major funders of this project, contributing $803,000 between 2012 – 2014. Doug DeVos is the Chair Emeritus for First Steps Kent and many of the Commission members make up the local power structure. 

Lastly, there is the group Talent 2025. This group is made up of CEO’s who want to create and develop talent for their own interests. The GRPS is also part of this effort, which ultimately wants to prepare students to be part of the workforce. The leadership of this group is also made up of the local power structure, with some DeVos family involvement. 

So, you can see why Teresa Weatherall Neal expressed such admiration for Betsy DeVos being chosen as the Secretary of Education. The DeVos family is deeply embedded in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, through their funding and the organizations they have had a hand in creating.

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