Education nominee Betsy DeVos gets Michigan educators talking

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan lobbyist and business executive Betsy DeVos’ nomination as U.S. secretary of education has been met with criticism from Michigan educators and public school advocates who have been sparring with DeVos for decades.

But some educators who have worked in Michigan charter schools, for which DeVos has been an aggressive advocate, argue that school competition has helped the state.

Those who have been pushing back against the billionaire GOP donor’s influence on state politics and legislation, including the Michigan Education Association (MEA), say that DeVos’s persistent advocacy for charter schools could prove detrimental to public schooling across the country if her nomination is confirmed.

“There has never been in [DeVos’s] history – and you only have to look at her history here in Michigan – much concern at all about the public schools,” said union President Steven Cook.

Since legislation authorizing public support for charter schools passed in Michigan in the 1990s, Cook said, the state has been running parallel systems that drain resources from  existing public schools.

The DeVos family has championed that system since the beginning.

“[We] have a huge additional infrastructure expense with charter schools that we did not have before,” Cook said. “So in many respects, they kind of siphon off dollars that are hard to come by in the first place.”

Superintendent Tim Webster of Reed City Area Schools has funding concerns for his schools as well, as he says they don’t receive the same amount of money to work with as the private, for-profit schools in the area.

“It’s just not a level playing field,” he says. “It’s frustrating.”

Even more concerning for Webster is the possibility of DeVos implementing a federal voucher program if she is confirmed. Vouchers allow parents to divert public money that would normally go toward their child’s public education into a private or religious school education instead. In Webster’s view, this is rarely beneficial for public schools.

Michigan currently does not have voucher programs because the state Constitution does not allow for them.

Sarah Bailey, principal of Evart Elementary School, said choice options such as vouchers and charters do take resources from public schools, but that such a challenge is not all bad.

“If parents leave because they have access to vouchers … they can now choose to put their child in a private school,” Bailey said. “That would impact my school’s operations because I would lose that funding for those students choosing to leave on a voucher.”

Bailey holds a unique perspective on the school choice debate: She has homeschooled her own children, worked as the director of a charter school in Manistee, and is now happy to be working as the principal of a public elementary school.

Though Bailey acknowledges the potential difficulties for public schools when vouchers are in play, she sees this less as an existential threat to public schooling and more of an opportunity to challenge herself and her colleagues to make Evart Elementary the best it can be.

“It’s a more accountable system because of school choice,” Bailey said. “If we are a school of excellence, people will choose us.”