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

June 13, 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.)

On May 7th a group of protestors, special education parents from the Disability A Team, challenged GRPS board members to explain their position on how their public superintendent could support Betsy DeVos, the most anti public school secretary of education in history.  This challenge came after reading Neal’s quote, “Neal thinks DeVos can hold up GRPS as a model of what can be done at other struggling districts.”  “She knows education.”  “She knows what it’s going to take in order for our kids to be helped.”  Neal sees the politically conservative family’s focus on education as their commitment to the, “greater social good”.  Neal was the sole superintendent from Michigan willing to go to Washington D.C. to support DeVos in her confirmation hearing for the secretary of education position.  Of course this trip was to be paid for by DeVos.

One board member indignantly responded to the question.  She mentioned that she personally didn’t like DeVos but added it’s laughable to think DeVos has anything to do with this district!  She failed to answer of what she thought Neal’s support to Devos meant and  what ramifications that could have on school policy at GRPS!

The same question was posed by local journalist Jeff Smith over a year ago in succinct fashion: As a GRPS board member, I would like to know what your reactions are to 1. The announcement that Betsy DeVos has been named as secretary of Education and 2. What impact that might have on GRPS?  No response was ever given to that most pertinent and relevant question. Considering the $67,000 dollar personal gift to Neal from Betsy Devos (a woman who affirmed we expect a return on our investment when asked about her donations).  The question seems more then pertinent to the parents and taxpayers of this district.  Has not the GRPS Board of Education noticed the national outcry from public school leaders who see DeVos’s efforts as categorically designed to undermine the public school system throughout the country.  The board members lack of response and accusation that the entire DeVos connection to GRPS was a laughable issue seems more than irresponsible and professionally inept.

If privatization is Betsy’s obsession, GRPS should make her very happy beginning with the privatization of the school bus fleet in 2005.  The GRPS Board of Education voted in the spring of 2005 to privatize its school bus service in a move to supposedly save the district 18 million over 5 years.  In reality the private company cost more monetarily and especially in service.  More alarming was the drivers employed by GRPS had agreed to lose their family’s health insurance that would have completely covered the supposed district deficit at that time.  Regardless of the concession, the Board of Education pushed through the privatization.  Later it was discovered that the owner of Dean Transportation was the son in law of our influential senator who was tight with the DeVos Family and prominent in West Michigan politics.

P.E.S.G. is a privatized substitute teacher company, which claims to be the leader in educational staffing.  Before its creation in 2007 the state of Michigan substitutes were part of the State teacher retirement system and were controlled by individual school districts.  That district relationship with the subs engendered personal knowledge of the teachers so valuable for effective knowledge of the teachers so valuable for effective placement.  The local school secretaries knew who would fit in specific classrooms with particular needs.  That personal relationship stopped when in 2007, Henry Bledsoe was approached by a human resource director from a West Michigan school district as well as an attorney according to MLive.  It is assumed that the HR director was from Grand Rapids Public Schools since they were the original and only school that contracted with PESG for some time.  The initiation of privatized subs at Grand Rapids Public School began the entire states privatization of substitute teachers.  The HR director that visited PESG to start this privatization worked for the company upon leaving GRPS.  Additionally, worrisome is the fact that Mr. Bledsoe, as owner of Benefit Management Administration, was ordered to cease and desist from continuing to sell fraudulent health insurance policies by the State of Michigan.  The employee benefits company at 6307 84th Street is the same address as PESG and sold policies that had no underlying insurance, according to the state office of Financial and Insurance Regulations.  Substitute teachers were privatized by a businessman with no background in education caught in an insurance scam!  How fortunate for the owner of the Benefit Advisory Group to initiate an entire regions substitute teachers transfer of state retirement benefits to his own benefit 401 plans.  The substitute teachers lost their future chance for vested retirement while the districts lost the personal relationships with the subs and sacrificed their responsibility of oversight.  As with the bus drivers on immediate decline in sub performance was seen after the privatization.  One West Michigan School accurately assessed the damage to the teacher’s retirement fund by eliminating the thousands of contributions according to the Muskegon Chronicle.  The Grand Haven School Board is wary that a surge in third party contracting might undermine the state retirement system by reducing contributions.  The teacher’s retirement fund has been a target for anti-public school legislatures for years.  In fact, a major proponent of eliminating teacher pensions, is the West Michigan Policy Forum, which was created, in part, by members of the DeVos Family. 

In the future when the state insists the retirement pension being paid to teachers be reduces 30 to 40% as they did in Illinois because of a shrinking fund remember the withdrawn substitutes.  The most damaging aspect is the complete substitute teacher shortage as mentioned in the MLive article of April 3, 2017: Substitute teacher shortage expected to continue to be an ongoing problem.  This problem has been caused by companies that strive for profits for their investors by keeping subs pay low.  The dismal condition of privatized subs today can be tied to the advent of PESG and its first involvement with GRPS.  Grand Rapids has recently dropped PESG and gone with another private company.

Oakdale Elementary is one of the many examples of public GRPS buildings that have been privatized.  There are a number of techniques used to camouflage the transition from public to private components of the GRPS district.  Some of the most blatant are to be found at Oakdale Elementary and the former Vandenberg School on Lafayette Street where the direct sale to charter schools is easy to trace.  A more insidious technique is to form charter schools under the partnership with big business and call them centers or innovation schools.  University Prep is a prime example of this technique.   Both the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, a full-fledged charter school and University Prep, insists on being called public schools.  This tendency to have charter schools or elements of charter schools at GRPS is certainly indicative of Betsy DeVos’ ideology as she has mentioned recently that traditional public schools and charter schools should be thought of as part of the same public system.  This comment is particularly irksome to public school educators because the two types of schools are managed differently and subject to different rules and regulations.  This clandestine blending or partnership technique produces such subtle differences that no one notices that the Discovery Center is a full-fledged charter school with its own private principal and superintendent and is still called a GRPS public school.  When recently asked, the president of the GREA wasn’t even aware that the teachers at the Discovery Center are privately hired and paid by the charter school.  One of the manifest differences indigenous to GRPS is that while being called public many of their buildings require a “test in” qualification to enter.  This is not an aspect of public schools traditional policy.  Public schools allow open enrollment and do not entangle entrance with any test in qualifications; such as that found at the Blandford Elementary, and other buildings within GRPS.  Students are not put on a waiting list subject for entrance based on a computer lottery pick in a traditional neighborhood school.

Oakdale was a fine neighborhood public school with open enrollment for decades.  It is now the home of 500 privatized students in the Timberline Charter Academy (NHA) K-5.  Suspicious circumstances surrounded in the NHA obtaining the GRPS properties.  Developer, Bruce Michael, owner of Ojibway Development flat out deceived the city according to then Major Heartwell as he had promised to transform the GRPS building into apartments but instead, immediately after purchasing Oakdale, Lexington and Eastern Schools, sold them to the charter school NHA for the same exact price.  Obviously he was not the only one deceiving Grand Rapids citizens.  Consider why a developer would sell the properties hours after the purchase from GRPS for the same price for No Profit!  It seems someone had worries over the awareness by the public of a public school selling buildings directly to a charter school company.  Another question was pointed out in a MLive article: “For many the question is how many students will the (new charter) siphon from Grand Rapids Public Schools?  When the NHA deal was revealed Grand Rapids school leadership said it wasn’t competition.  Five hundred privatized students would seem to almost anyone as competition but it doesn’t appear that Grand Rapids Public really cares as the district has lost 8,000 students in a little over a decade.  There is an epidemic of transformation (code for privatization) occurring in the city of Grand Rapids and its symptoms are clear: they close public and they open private!

Another example of charter establishment was the sale of Campau Elementary (a beloved neighborhood school) to Covenant House Michigan, another for-profit private charter school from Detroit Michigan.  Again from MLIve; The Charter School draws students desperate for a last chance from throughout the region but significant numbers of students at S.E. Career Pathways which was a Grand Rapids Public School were also labeled as last chance students and were provided with a curriculum and staff to implement their last chance at graduation.  The writer knows this because he taught there. GRPS students at S.E. were sent letters from GRPS informing them it was mandatory to attend the newly opened charter school based on their G.P.A.  Today Covenant House has 320 students.  Many of them would have been GRPS students.

*The Griid 2016, griid.org

*Mackinaw Center Grand Rapids found Privatizes Busing Michigan Education Report

*MLIve September 25, 2009 State Orders Benefit Management Administrators INC.  To stop selling….

*MLIve December 26, 2017: Privatizing Substitute Teachers is a Growing Trend

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