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

June 14, 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.)

Grand Rapids Schools sells its’ property at bargain prices. The Vandenberg building went for 400 thousand on a lot of nearly three acres. The lot alone is worth more than 400K. Shawnee Park was sold to a private Christian school for 50 K less than the appraised value in 2014.  After the contentious sale of Oakdale, Lexington, and Eastern schools, school board Vice President Maureen Slade said, “We learned our lesson, referring to the sale of the Shawnee Park and Hillcrest Schools. Evidently the lesson she referred to was gained after the Oakdale School ended up in a charter schools’ hands and was mentioned in an Feb. 11th 2014 MLIVE article.

It would be embarrassing to be fooled again with an immediate transfer to a charter school like the transition Bruce Michael pulled off to National Heritage Academies. NHA has opened a large number of charter schools in Kent County like the one at Oakdale where it clearly competes for GRPS students and the state per pupil funding that travels with them. Evidently inherent in the lesson mentioned by the GRPS board member is that charter schools do compete with public as NHA currently has over 500 students that when added to the Child Discovery Center students we find a large number of displaced public teachers and retirement fund payments. This is clearly damaging to the public school system and for a public school defender such as a superintendent or a public school board to enhance that conversion is unconscionable.

Grand Rapids Christian, the largest private school association in Michigan, has been given $350,000 by the DeVos’ resulting  in naming the worship and art center after the billionaire family. DeVos gave Potters House $200,000,  another private Christian school here in Grand Rapids.* From the New York Times we read: “It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos. For nearly 30 years she has been an activist and Republican fund raiser. She has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools and tried to strip teachers unions of their influence.”*

While stripping unions of their influence does not curiously appear to upset the local GREA or statewide MEA the animosity certainly exists between DeVos and AFT President Randi Weingarten.” Meanwhile Weingarten characterized the rift between the two sides as a David versus Goliath battle. Historically she said school choice efforts were rooted in a desire for segregation.

This privatization and disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation. We are in the same fight against the same forces who are keeping the same children from getting the public education they deserve.  And what better way to pave the path to privatize education than to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their shortcomings and let the market handle the rest. All in the name of choice.* That’s patently false, DeVos said adding that wealthy people can choose to move to areas with good schools or pay tuition for private schools.* We must note that GRPS adds “your choice” to its’ school logo. The MEA has little or no equivalency to other unions attacks against DeVos, a fact which seems to indicate the pervasiveness of DeVos control in West Michigan and particularly here in Grand Rapids. 

Mrs. DeVos’s efforts to expand educational opportunity in her home state and across Michigan have focused little on existing traditional schools and almost entirely on establishing newer more entrepreneurial models (like University Prep) to compete with traditional schools for support and money. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups seeking to move students and money away from what Mr. Trump calls “failing government schools.”

The cavalcade of privatization at GRPS continued with the transformation of Walkes Juvenile Detention Center where GRPS had instructed students since the program’s inception. This school was only another part of the total elimination of most of GRPS’s alternative education programs. The program director at the center when asked why they discontinued their relationship with GRPS after decades of instruction, his response was because we never saw the GRPS principal in our building. Today, the Kent County juvenile center is totally privatized with a private teaching company obliterating more public school positions and adjoining retirement contributions.

GRPS closed Creston High School in 2013 after a 110 year Polar Bear tradition and neighborhood home for students. Deposed students were forced to find other  schools or go to the GRPS Center of Innovation School at Central High School. Current students were to be accepted without qualifications but the preceding classes would not be accepted without qualification at Central. This was coupled with the fact that the students would now have to travel from their neighborhood to Central daily. That inconvenience, and break with a 100 year neighborhood history, was supposedly because of a lagging enrollment of 600 students which was replaced with a whopping 700 students. From MLive: when GRPS superintendent Teresa Neal pitched her proposal to close 10 schools as part of a restructuring plan, the biggest pushback came from closing the old Creston High School.*

The traditional high school at Creston was replaced by the recipient program at Central High School which had also been in existence since 1911. It was converted to one of the famed centers of innovation in 2007. Like the other center of innovation it has limited seats where enrollment had been opened for decades. Also like its’ counterpart U prep, it remains an unrated school, according to U.S. News, not subject to state measurements.  These educational traits are not indigenous to  public schools. Two main objectives of non public schools are to control enrollment and escape academic measurement and evaluation.

Park School located at 1150 Adams Street had been a highly successful GRPS alternative ed school serving pregnant and new mothers and was totally unique to West Michigan. The property was sold to Rockford Construction partnering with Doug and Maria DeVos. The school with its’ large playground was sold for a real bargain in the contested gentrification location known as Boston Square.  According to Monica Scott in an MLive article of Aug 16, “There were initial concerns about community input and gentrification following the leaked information of the sale. But Teresa Neal again gave her assurances that there will be very intentional inclusion (except pregnant mothers) at all neighborhood stakeholders and an extensive community engagement process. * ”The purchase of Park School is just one part of a larger plan, one that will have direct benefit to GRPS particularly Dickinson Academy”, according to Neal. Dickinson needs all the help it can get as according to it rates Dickinson below average in school quality compared to other schools in the state with this warning, “test scores at this school fall far below the state average. Students at this school are making less academic progress given where they were last year, compared to similar students in the state.” *Only 11% are proficient in math and only 14% are proficient in English. It’s hard to imagine how terminating the alternative ed service to pregnant girls benefited the students at Dickinson.

Perhaps the most extreme example of public private turnover has taken place at the Vandenberg building on the corner of Wealthy and Lafayette street. The long time neighborhood school was sold directly to a private charter school called Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center in 2010. “John Helmholdt, GRPS spokesman said the sale price was below the property’s appraised value of $550,000. The Child Discovery Center is listed as a GRPS public school. It is however its’ own private district and the GRPS moniker is deceptive for a reason. At the same BOE meeting that voted unanimously to sell the Vandenberg property, it also pushed for advantageous charter school reforms. GRPS BOE pushed for a new classification of “charter like” schools that would operate within existing low performing public school districts like their own. The prize for GRPS was according to MLive article of 1/3/11, that the new platform “would broaden school choice for districts like GRPS without shifting state pupil/funding to charter schools, district leaders said.* Helmholdt again said  we should have the ability to open innovative schools that maybe have charter like features, but they’re done within the system.” In layman’s terms the charter like features mean the GRPS schools could enjoy the controlled enrollment of charter schools plus the avoidance of evaluation from public school measures and still collect public monies. One has to marvel at the term charter like schools but now realize years later that moniker has resulted in a district that is saturated with charter like aspects to the detriment of students, teachers and taxpayers. The Discovery Center Charter School boasts that it has its’ own superintendent, principal and teachers. Lisa Heyne is the superintendent not Teresa Neal. The Discovery Center is a totally private school listed as a GRPS school and has siphoned off nearly 500 students from potentially GRPS. Most amazingly the only connection the Discovery Center has with GRPS is that it was chartered to be a private charter school by GRPS. The clearest indication of a district in league with the proliferation of private schooling is when they actually charter one of them. It is simply incredible to realize that sitting in the heart of GRPS district is a privatized charter school, pretending to be a GRPS public school. The necessity to obfuscate Discovery Center’s real identity is symptomatic of the entire district’s proclivity to disguise and justify its’ privatization from bus drivers to school buildings.

University Prep at 512 Division is another representative of the much ballyhooed Center of Innovation within GRPS, which was built entirely with private business money primarily from the DeVos family. University Prep is a prime example of one of Helmholdt’s charter like schools as it operates by a board of accumulated business leaders. This hybrid business/public partnership allows the desired effect of getting public money for private invested influence. This exchange of purchased control by business and the corporate world may look innocuous at the ribbon cutting ceremonies, but let’s check the results at U.Prep. Remember, thanks to John Engler, any charter school in Michigan can be called a public school but like University Prep they are subject to different rules and non- regulations, escaping public scrutiny and accountability.  According to Great this is U Prep’s ratings: The school is rated below average in school quality compared to other schools in the state. Students at U. Prep perform below average on test scores compared to state average test scores. U Prep amazingly has below average college readiness measures and yet it sells itself as a school preparing students for college? U Prep also has below average results in how well it’s serving its’ disadvantaged students. Test scores at UPrep compared to state averages:

Math: 6%    State average:35%

English 16%    State Average 45%

Science 6%    State average 28%

Scores indicate percentage of proficiency. Again according to Great “this school is below key measures of college and career readiness.” Remember high graduation rates don’t mean much if students are graduating without the course work and test scores they need to succeed.*  To add to this dismal disclosure U.S. News evaluates U Prep as 91% of students not proficient in math with GRPS at 82% overall not proficient in math. In reading U.Prep was at 64% non proficient with the district at the same low 64% non proficient.”* Evidently U. Prep scores are not the exception at GRPS. These scores are to be found at many of the buildings. It’s inconsequential how many business funded theme schools you open if you are producing students who can’t read! It would appear that GRPS has adopted a policy of test-in requirements for enrollment at a number of schools to try and raise these scores in lieu of actually tackling reading instruction. At Blandford Elementary for example students need to pass a Reading/Math test to qualify for entrance. The district then uses a computer lottery system for final admission. A true public school makes no delineation based on academic levels for admission. To enter your neighborhood school didn’t rest on a computer lottery luck system. The slow and assiduous conversion of GRPS public required great care and skill to disguise the pockets and components of privatization.

Cambridge Education had a hand in that conversion. Cambridge is part of a large private consulting company from Mott Macdonald in Great Britain. Cambridge was sent to GRPS as a gift from the DeVos’ in April of 2012. As a result of a private paid business led audit of GRPS, Cambridge Education revealed that the district needed to restructure. In August 2012, the audit done by Cambridge Education revealed the district needed to restructure to deliver a better education to students reflecting current student population and to save money. That December the school board approved superintendent Neal’s district restructure known as the transformation plan. It should be noted that the origin of this so called restructure plan was a private for-profit company and not the result of some personal educational philosophy and awareness of superintendent Neal.  Somehow this plan became her plan when the name was changed to the transformation plan. Almost immediately the newly named plan garnered the support of local conservative politicians. “State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons R Alto and Sen Dave Hildenbrand R-Lowell Twp. have written letters supporting the Grand Rapids superintendent and school board’s planned major overhaul of the district to improve achievement and finances.”* Someone should send both these politicians the recent evaluations of the newly formed schools as a result of this transformation.

Lyons, chair of the house education committee, said, ”if the district’s transformation is approved, embraced and fully implemented in a timely fashion, it could very well set the standard for the entire state.”* How prescient Lyons could have added for the entire nation if she knew her friend DeVos would be heading the Department of Education.

After the December vote the district was subject to Cambridge oversight and within a few months the dismantling of the alternative Ed program would commence. Also Teach For America ( TFA) was introduced and invited to the district before being soundly attacked by teachers at Union High School. The district had to back off of the TFA initiative which had been a directive from Cambridge. Unfortunately, that was the only initiative that was reversed. It is more than relevant to remember the transformation plan was conceived in the bowels of a corporate backed consulting firm that costs millions of dollars for a district that was already top heavy with the number of administrators per student and pay. Did they need million dollar consultants from the U.K? Evidently like Teresa Neal who needed a coach hired by Betsy DeVos as she began her tenure, the entire cadre of administrators, parents, teachers along with Teresa Neal and her cabinet, GREA and school board needed leadership training to understand the transformational concept. No problem as corporations again filled the gap with Steelcase foundation granting 1.2 million to train in unison this wide spectrum of educators who needed instruction to implement a program emanating from and for local corporations.*

Brave voices have spoken out about these overt and covert practices that are slowly eroding the public school milieu at GRPS. According to Board member Jose Flores, Grand Rapids Public Schools has the highest rate of pay for its’ administrators in Kent County. It is higher than the 20 other Kent County schools for 5 straight years and as Flores points out it is extensive and damaging to the indigenous students of this district. Special needs children could be better served by reducing administration costs in any district. We all should be concerned about 49 administrators making over $90,000 a year and 26 more making over $100,000. Meanwhile, he adds, we can’t even match state or national academic performance levels. It is not acceptable that nearly 75% of our 3rd graders can’t read, Jose lamented.

Rich Fink former MEA officer and president of Jenison’s teacher union for 20 years had these words to share: “one merely needs to look at Grand Rapids Public Schools to see the DeVos influence. Slowly and systematically the public schools are being dismantled and turned into public charters within the system. The process is slowly and quietly segregating students based on academic abilities requiring applications to be filed to be considered, and finally leaving those whose academic abilities are below the standard no real choice. This is Betsy’s hidden agenda. Provide money and opportunity to the best and brightest and leave the remainder of the students in those underfunded “public schools” because that is all they really deserve!

An anonymous non-instructive union member worker at GRPS for over 20 years stated that he has witnessed privatization creeping into his department and other areas of supportive roles. Along with privatized service workers like bus drivers, custodians, and clerical staff he warns we are now seeing skilled workers like the plumbers and carpenters being replaced with private companies. It just keeps spreading he stated, “we even now are privatizing our truck usage. There was a time our warehouse had thousands of school items that we supplied the whole district with. Today it’s only a few hundred items he added because the rest has been privatized. It all adds up to loss of jobs and we know it, he lamented.

Grand Rapids Schools has become a beehive of privatization with only a public school banner over it. To not meet state academic performance levels is an  indicator of failure as the state averages themselves have dropped precipitously since the advent and epidemic of charter schools, with Michigan 4th graders at the bottom of national reading levels. To constantly bang the graduation celebration drum while remaining oblivious to Dr. Flores’ admonition or Jeff Smith’s inquiries along with a chorus of others is irresponsible on the part of the GRPS board. It is time to realize where the leadership of this district gets its’’ bread buttered and what its’ true objectives are. Whose education philosophy are they trying to inculcate? Does it not merit a reply to the question, has DeVos money bought influence with the superintendent of this district and by extension its’ board? The question may remain unanswered and maybe laughed at by the board members but the blatant evidence of that implemented philosophy resonates across this district!

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