By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
The destroy public education (DPE) movement’s most egregious outcome may be in Detroit and it is being driven by a virulent Christian ideology.
In 2001, Dick and Betsy DeVos answered questions for the Gathering. Dick DeVos opined that church has retreated from its central role in communities and has been replaced by the public school. He said it is our hope “churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.” Betsy noted, “half of our giving is towards education.”
Jay Michaelson writing for the Daily Beast described the Gathering:
“The Gathering is a hub of Christian Right organizing, and the people in attendance have led the campaigns to privatize public schools, redefine “religious liberty” (as in the Hobby Lobby case), fight same-sex marriage, fight evolution, and, well, you know the rest.”
“The Gathering is an annual event at which many of the wealthiest conservative to hard-right evangelical philanthropists in America—representatives of the families DeVos, Coors, Prince, Green, Maclellan, Ahmanson, Friess, plus top leaders of the National Christian Foundation—meet with evangelical innovators with fresh ideas on how to evangelize the globe. The Gathering promotes “family values” agenda: opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights, for example, and also a global vision that involves the eventual eradication of all competing belief systems that might compete with The Gathering’s hard-right version of Christianity.”
In the Gathering interview, Betsy talks about how she and Dick both come from business-oriented families. From their experience, they understand how competition and choice are key drivers to improve any enterprise. She says public education needs choice and competition instead of forcing people into government-run schools.
She was also asked how she felt about homeschooling? She replied, “we like home schools a lot,” and humorously shared, “not sure our daughters do, they were homeschooled for three years.” Then Dick added how impressed he was with Bill Bennet’s new project, K-12. He said it wasn’t a Christian oriented on-line curriculum but it was a complete education program that could help homeschoolers.
By the 1990’s Dick and Betsy DeVos were successfully influencing Michigan education policies and using private giving to drive their agenda. Christina Rizga wrote about the DeVos’s philanthropy for Mother Jones.
“… [T]here’s the DeVoses’ long support of vouchers for private, religious schools; conservative Christian groups like the Foundation for Traditional Values, which has pushed to soften the separation of church and state; and organizations like Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has championed the privatization of the education system.”
As the new century opened, the DeVos agenda was being ever more adopted in Lancing. If improving the education of children in Michigan was the goal, then the DeVos education agenda has proved to be a clear failure. On the other hand, if destroying public education to accommodate privatized Christian schools was the goal, they are still on track.
This result from Michigan is consistent with education testing correlations throughout the world. Julie Halpert a writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan just published a new article in Atlantic Magazine called “What if America Didn’t have Public Schools.” In it she reports,
“On a regional assessment conducted by the United Nations between 2004 and 2008, students in the all-public Cuba outperformed the largely private Chile in sixth-grade reading and sixth-grade math. In fact, Cuba is the only Latin American country with scores significantly higher than the regional average in both math and reading. Even the best students in Chile, Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute says, ‘couldn’t come close to touching’ Cuba’s results.”
In his book Education and the Commercial Mindset, Samuel E. Abrams tells the story of the Swedes opting to privatize their schools. He wrote:
“Basic to the UR [the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company] series was a crisis of faith in Swedish education known as ‘PISA shock.’ Of all OECD nations, only Sweden had seen scores on the triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) successively drop with each administration of the exam since its introduction in 2000.”
Sarah and Christopher Lubienski conducted probably the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, examining achievement in public and private or independent schools. Their study was published in 2014 by The University of Chicago Press under the title “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.” Some key findings:
“Further analyses indicate that academic growth is greater for students in public schools than for those in private schools.”
“While a simplistic look at the evidence suggests that private school students indeed score higher, closer scrutiny of the evidence rather conclusively demonstrates that this in not because public schools are failing but because they serve less advantaged students. In fact, public schools in this study actually add more value to their students’ learning.”
For the DPE movement, evidence about quality or outcomes in education are not relevant. For the billionaires driving education reform, it is about ideology and business.
DeVos Led Privatization Agenda Wreaked Havoc in Detroit
In 1999, under then-Governor John Engler’s lead, Michigan did away with the elected school board in Detroit. They followed Chicago’s example and gave school control to the mayor. President Clinton had proclaimed mayoral control a success there.
The Associated Press’s Corey Williams explained:
“In the late 1990s, then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican, wanted to intervene in districts where more than 80 percent of students failed the state proficiency test or the dropout rate was higher than 25 percent. The state said the graduation rate of the 180,000-student Detroit district was about 30 percent; district officials said it was closer to 52 percent.”
“The state returned control to an elected board in 2005, even though Detroit students still ranked among Michigan’s worst on standardized tests, the district was $48 million in debt and had a $150 million budget shortfall.”
“There was never anything pointing to this financial crisis” before the takeover, said Martinez, who with other school board members were forced from office in 1999. “When we left office, … we had a $90 million surplus.”
The reinstated 2005 school board did not fare well. It had a huge debt to deal with and by 2007 an FBI corruption investigation. Williams reported that a long-time vendor, Norman Shy, pleaded guilty in federal court to receiving $2.7 million as part of a kickback scheme in which some principals and an administrator issued bogus orders for supplies.
One of the big drivers causing student enrollment to drop in Detroit public schools were the privatization efforts led by Betsy DeVos and her family. In 2001, the family started the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), whose political action committee aggressively lobbies for charter schools.
According to Politico’s Zack Stanton, “In 2002, the first election of GLEP’s existence, its PAC had more money than the Michigan Education Association, United Auto Workers, or any Democratic-affiliated PAC in the state.”
“…, 16 years after the DeVoses’ failed constitutional amendment, this constant push has totally remade Michigan education. The cap on the number of charter schools eliminated and attempts to provide public oversight have been defeated, making Michigan’s charters among the most-plentiful and least-regulated in the nation. About 80 percent of Michigan’s 300 publicly funded charters are operated by for-profit companies, more than any other state.”
Steven Henderson reporting for the Detroit Free Press adds:
“The results of this free-for-all have been tragic for Michigan children, and especially for those in Detroit, where 79% of the state’s charters are located.”
Table of a Developing Financial Crisis in Detroit Public Schools
|School Year||Budget Balance||Student Population||Governance|
|1998-1999||$90,000,000||180,000||Elected School Board|
|2005-2009||$200,000,000||95,000||Elected School Board|
|2009-2011||$284,000,000||67,000||1st Emergency Manager – Bobb|
|2016 Total Debt||$2,100,000,000||48,000||Emergency Manager – 4|
|Total Decrease in State Money 1999 to 2016||$788,000,000|
The main cause of the red ink at Detroit Public Schools (DPS) is stranded costs associated with a dramatic drop in enrollment. The extra costs associated with privatizing DPS were all born by the public schools.
Not acknowledging their own role in creating the financial crisis in Detroit, the state government again pushed the elected school board aside in 2009. Education policy was theoretically left under the purview of the school board but financial management would be the responsibility of a governor-appointed emergency manager. This time it was a Democratic Governor, Jenifer Granholm who selected a graduate of the unaccredited Broad superintendents’ academy class of 2005, Robert Bobb, to be the manager.
Not only did Granholm select a Broad Academy graduate, but Eli Broad paid part of his $280,000 salary. Sharon Higgins, who studies the Broad Academy, reports that a civil rights group and a coalition of teachers who oppose charter schools questioned “whether Bobb was in conflict of interest for accepting $89,000 of his salary from a foundation that supports private and charter schools.”
Bobb made significant cuts to DPS. He closed many schools and eliminated 25% of the district’s employees. He also sold several school buildings. The Detroit News reported in March 2010, “Instead of a $17 million surplus Bobb projected for this fiscal year, spending has increased so much Bobb is projecting a $98 million deficit for the budget year that ends June 30.”
Bobb blamed unforeseeable costs related to declining enrollment. Curt Guyette at the Metro-Times relates that many people blamed spending on high priced consultants and contracts. Guyette provided this example:
“Of particular note was Barbara Byrd-Bennett, hired by Bobb on a nine-month contract to be the district’s chief academic and accountability auditor. She received a salary of nearly $18,000 a month plus an armed personal driver. In addition, Byrd, a former chief executive officer of Cleveland’s public schools system, ‘brought with her at least six consultants who are collectively being paid more than $700,000 for about nine months of work,’ according to a 2009 Detroit Free Press article.”
In 2011, Republican Governor Rich Snyder ushered through two laws that had a negative effect on DPS. The first law, Public Act 4, gave the emergency manager total control and removed all powers from the elected school board. The second law, Public Act 436, created a state school district called the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) which took effect in 2013.
The EAA’s first task was to take over 15 of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools. This immediately removed another 11,000 students from DPS and further stressed its finances.
Counting Robert Bobb there were five emergency managers at DPS between 2009 and 2016. Mercedes Schneider reports that “The most recent Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, Darnell Earley, is chiefly responsible for water contamination in Flint, Michigan.”
By 2016, the schools of DPS were in such a disgraceful condition that the New York Times called them “crumbling” and “destitute.” The Times’ article included this quote: ‘“We have rodents out in the middle of the day,’ said Ms. Aaron, a teacher of 18 years. ‘Like they’re coming to class.”’
July 1, 2017, the EAA returned the fifteen schools to DPS and the Michigan legislature finally acted to mitigate the debt crisis created in Holland and Lancing, not Detroit. Also on July 1, 2017, Nikolai Vitti, the new superintendent of DPS, took on the challenge of rehabilitating the public schools of Detroit.
The Destroy Public Education (DPE) Model Still Running
The researchers from Indiana who defined the DPE model are Gail Cosby, Nate Williams, and Jim Scheurich. I paraphrased their model this winter in a December post:
- Business is the best model for schools.
- A local-national collaboration between wealthy conservatives. (Sometimes far right)
- Huge infusion of new dollars into school board elections. (Dark Money)
- Unified enrollment.
- Teach for America (or any instant-teacher-certification program) and groups like Teach Plus controlling professional development of teachers.
- Innovations Schools. An ALEC sponsored charter conversion model.
- A funding conduit for national-local wealthy individuals and organizations to support local DPE initiatives.
- Integration of charter schools into traditional public schools with rules favoring charter schools.
- Developing networks of local organizations or affiliates that collaborate on the agenda.
- Support for gentrification.
Education Cities bills itself as a national leader in the DPE movement. On their web-page, they list Detroit Children’s Fund and The Skillman Foundation as their partners in Detroit.
The Skillman Foundation has a little more than $400 million and they seem to be the main local financiers of the DPE movement in Detroit. Detroit Children’s Fund (DCF) appears to be the political organizers. DCF says of itself:
“Detroit Children’s Fund (DCF) has partnered with School Empowerment Network (SEN) to offer an intensive development opportunity for school leadership teams.”
“DCF is powered by a deep partnership with the Skillman Foundation. The Foundation has been working in Detroit since 1960 and is recognized as lead advocate for children in the city. Detroit Children’s Fund and the Skillman Foundation share staff, allowing DCF to leverage the Foundation’s deep relationships and knowledge.”
Instead of partnering with the venerable education departments at Michigan State and the University of Michigan, Skillman partners with lightly credentialed and inexperienced non-profits to provide teacher professional development. Only a privatization agenda explains this strange behavior.
In the last few years, Skillman has made grants to; TFA $850,000, Education Cities $85,000, and Relay Graduate School $40,000.
The DPE movement is harming America. What the Amway clan has done to Detroit should be labeled a hate crime. It is treason. We must protect our right to freedom of conscience. Our public schools are a cornerstone of America’s great democratic experiment and the source of protection for liberty. Do not bow down to the lords of Mammon, fight their greed and dangerous religious agenda.