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Betsy DeVos and the Covert Privatization of Grand Rapids Public Schools: Part I

June 12, 2018

(The following three part series, was written by Jack Prince. Jack is a retired educator with 30 years experience on the High School and college level. He spent 10 years as a teacher with the Grand Rapids Public Schools.)

Michigan is number one in the country with for profit charter schools.  The following is an excerpt of the Montgomery Securities Group explaining to corporate America the lure of privatizing education.  Author Jonathan Kozol quotes “The education industry, according to these analysts, represents in our opinion the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control” that have either voluntarily opened or, they note in pointed terms, have “been forced” to open up to private enterprise.  Indeed they write, “The education industry represents the largest market opportunity” since health-care services were privatized during the 70’s.

From the point of view of private profit, one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, “The K-12 market is the big enchilada.  With the yearly public spending in the hundreds of millions alone in Michigan, neoliberals like Betsy DeVos have long appreciated the profit motive associated with the golden equation “Public money for private profit.”  Betsy DeVos, along with President Donald Trump have made promoting charter schools and taxpayer funded vouchers a centerpiece in their educational philosophy and platform.  That charter school proclivity is reflected in their proposed education budget, which clearly hurts public schools and college students. A summary of the rejected proposed 2018 education budget indicated DeVos’ priorities:

  • cut public education funding by 13.6%
  • cut 1.2 billion from after school programs
  • cut 27 million from art education
  • cut IDEA (special education by 13.3 million
  • cut 2.1 billion from funding to reduce to reduce class size and support professional development
  • cut 700 million in college loans for low income students *

The savings that would have been realized by these cuts were intended by the DeVos educational department to be channeled back to private and/or religious schools that are unaccountable to public review. 

In 2013 K-12 Inc. the largest private charter school in the country with an enrollment of over 100,000 students took in 730 billion from taxpayers for online virtual computer instruction. These virtual charter schools exist here in Grand Rapids, such as the for profit Nex Tech charter school at 801 Broadway, where students are forced to go when the public schools are closed. DeVos’ proposed  2018 budget would have given more than 1 billion more to such virtual online schools along with private school vouchers.

Betsy DeVos’ penchant to undermine public education through the entrenchment of privatization can be seen empirically beyond her education budget machinations .Not knowing what IDEA is or believing that schools should have guns in case of grizzly bears, are mere indications of DeVos’ pervasive ignorance and lack of basic preparedness and yet they are insignificant to the main tenet of her ideology.  An ideology that was present in her family decades ago lying in wait like a time bomb here in West Michigan. 

Betsy DeVos’ economic prowess was derived from her father, a fundamentalist conservative businessman, who made it rich developing the ubiquitous lighted sun visor in Holland Michigan.  In the 1980’s the Prince family merged with one of the most venerable conservative families in the U.S. when Betsy  married Dick DeVos , whose father Rich, is the co-founder of the multilevel marketing firm Amway, distributor of home products, regularly plagued with accusations that the company is run like a cult and is nothing more than a sophisticated pyramid  scheme.*

Betsy DeVos would go on to chair Michigan Republican Party from 1996-2000. Her husband Dick DeVos was the GOP candidate for governor in 2006.  Previously the DeVos family spent upwards of 3 million in 2000 pushing to implement school vouchers in Michigan. Betsy’s brother Erik Prince, in parallel with Betsy’s penchant to privatized education, had his own privatization endeavor with the U.S. army. Erik was the creator of the largest private military industrial company, Blackwater Worldwide, with the $500,000,000 inheritance from his father Edgar.  Recently Erik proposed to Donald Trump that the United States have a private mercenary army to fix Afghanistan, a country we’ve been at war with since 2001.* Imagine the conversation around the Thanksgiving table at the DeVos’ 22,000 square foot home in Holland Michigan with Betsy asking Erik how his privatizing of the American army is going with Erik countering with the question of how her privatizing of the public education  system is coming, followed by “pass the stuffing please.” Prince and DeVos, like Trump, use their wealth to exert political influence and advance ideological visions that are harmful to U.S. democracy and public institutions.  The Prince-DeVos family is yet another example of Trump bringing in wealthy friends to corrupt the foundations of American public life.*

Investment intertwined with political cause is a trademark of Betsy and Erik Prince.  Consider the comment from Elizabeth Warren at DeVos’ confirmation hearing “It is difficult to imagine a worse choice to head the department of education-Betsy DeVos doesn’t believe in public schools, her only knowledge of student loans seems to come from her own financial investments connected to debt collectors who hound people struggling with student loans and despite being a billionaire she wants the chance to keep making money off shady investments while she runs the department of education.”            

Clearly privatization is an  icon for the Prince family. Patriarchal father Edgar and mother Elsa donated millions to support the conservative fundamentalist political goals, including the Family Research Council, which has become one of the leading religious right groups active in organizing against gay rights and promoting state sponsored prayer along with vouchers for religious schools.* 

The legacy of vouchers in Betsy’s family history translates into an array of initiatives to induce privatization. It is worthy to consider that privatization of all public institutions is a mainstay in conservative ideology which has cached the Prince family legacy for decades here in West Michigan. The next logical inspection is to see how DeVos’ influence has promulgated in West Michigan and specifically in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, and consider the extrapolation of her ideology nationally now that she presides as the Secretary of Education. 

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