In an article published this morning by the Detroit News, I examine the beginning of a 30-year journey that Betsy DeVos has taken from mentoring at-risk kids in Grand Rapids, Michigan to becoming the country’s leading voice for education reform. DeVos will go before a Senate committee next week in a confirmation hearing for her appointment by President-elect Donald Trump as the next secretary of education.
While my Detroit News piece focuses on how DeVos first became involved in school reform, I expand on her work on behalf of children and families below. This provides important context ahead of her confirmation hearing. As I explain in the Detroit News:
Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, have mentored dozens of children in the Grand Rapids area. They’ve continued to do so over the years even as they have become increasingly involved in state and national efforts to reform education. Recent media coverage in the wake of her nomination has portrayed DeVos as an ideologically-driven, anti-public school crusader, but her work in Grand Rapids and across Michigan paints a different picture, that of a woman devoted to helping kids succeed regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.
Below is a continuation of the Detroit News article examining the development of Betsy DeVos’ support for school reform and her concern about the status quo in education.
An important point to keep in mind for DeVos’ nomination comes from a Washington Post op-ed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney published last weekend:
As a highly successful businesswoman, DeVos doesn’t need the job now, nor will she be looking for an education job later. Her key qualification is that she cares deeply about our children and will do everything in her power to offer them a brighter future. She founded two of the nation’s leading education reform organizations and helped open the door to charter schools in her home state of Michigan. I have known her for many years; she is smart, dynamic, no nonsense and committed. That’s why the education establishment is so animated to stop her.
I encourage you to read my Detroit News article before continuing on below…
Fighting to Reform Michigan Schools
While Betsy DeVos has been successful in business, she recognizes the challenges that many parents face getting their children into schools that will help them succeed. “We knew we had the resources to send our kids to whatever school was best for them. For these parents, however, paying tuition was a real sacrifice,” she told Philanthropy magazine in an interview discussing her early visits to Potter’s House.
In the early 1990s, after years witnessing the struggles of poor families in their own community, DeVos became involved with education policy initiatives supporting charter schools, vouchers, and increased accountability. Education policy in Michigan has long been driven by teachers unions, but reforms have come as urban districts have sought better opportunities for children. Michigan passed its first charter school bill in 1993.
Limited change has since come to education standards and testing. DeVos, who served as the Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman, supported education reform efforts by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm to raise high school standards and require that all students take a college entrance exam. That legislation passed in 2006. The state has seen gains as the policies have been implemented, and it is more honest with parents about proficiency levels, which have dropped because the state raised standards.
DeVos has long fought for the state to adopt tax-credit scholarships or vouchers to allow families to escape failing schools, but despite the state’s poor education performance, reform has been an uphill battle. The state constitution still prohibits choice beyond public schools. Accountability is also a one-sided equation. More than 100 charter schools have been closed in Michigan, but no public school has ever been closed. This is despite Detroit charter schools delivering better performance gains than public schools, according to research out of Stanford University.
Today, while Michigan is one of the biggest spenders on education, it is one of the ten worst states in performance. Fewer than 20 percent of high school juniors are college- or career-ready.
“It continues to be an uphill climb for us in Michigan to create additional educational opportunities for at-risk kids, since it means upsetting entrenched interest groups and taking on the defenders of the status quo who usually put adult conveniences above student needs,” said Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, which is partially funded by DeVos.
“For decades we’ve been chipping away at the education monopoly and fighting for more choice, improved quality and greater accountability. Yet the combination of disjointed governance, archaic constitutional language and a toxic political environment have made it more difficult here than in other states,” Naeyaert continued.
Fighting for Better Schools in Other States
While Michigan continues to put roadblocks in the path to reform, DeVos has played a key role in advocacy for other states to adopt choice and accountability. She is the chair of the American Federation for Children, which was active in bringing reform to states like Florida and Louisiana.
In Florida, 43 percent of students now attend a different school than they are geographically assigned, and those students tend to be from lower-income and minority areas. One of those students, Denisha Merriweather, wrote for The Hill: “The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which served 95,000 children from low-income and working-class households in the state this year, turned my life around.” She explained, “School was such a nightmare so early in my life that I managed to fail third grade twice before my godmother took me in and decided that I needed a change. That change was Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school in Jacksonville that was accessible to us only because of a scholarship that helped my godmother afford the tuition.”
Merriweather, who says she is not a Republican, believes DeVos can help lead important reforms nationwide. “[T]hose who cast Betsy DeVos’ support for school choice as an attack on public education disregard the extent to which the status quo is often a dead end for students like me,” she argues.
Louisiana also has a rapidly-growing school choice program. There are now 74,000 students enrolled in charter schools, and 8,000 students receive previously-unavailable scholarships to private schools in order to leave their failing public schools.
“Charter school laws and the scholarship program were passed because Betsy DeVos led,” writes Phillip Stutts, an education policy expert who has worked with DeVos. “She wasn’t dogmatic about the vouchers or charter schools; she was dogmatic on making sure we empowered parents to make the best education decision for their kids.”
“From Their Hearts, They Want to Improve Kids’ Lot in Life”
While Betsy DeVos has gradually shifted much of her attention beyond mentoring children in Grand Rapids, her devotion remains to the individual students who will benefit from better schools.
Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, ran for governor of Michigan in 2006, losing to Granholm. After the race was over, Betsy challenged him to do something he was passionate about. Dick, an aviation enthusiast, was inspired by a story he has told many times since: Summer was approaching, and the DeVoses asked one of the children they were mentoring in Grand Rapids whether he’d be going to the lake that summer. The child asked, “What lake?” In Grand Rapids, “going to the lake” means Lake Michigan, which is only 30 miles away, but this child had never heard of Lake Michigan. The DeVoses realized the boy, like many others from disadvantaged neighborhoods, had a very limited radius in Grand Rapids to which he’d ever been exposed.
Betsy and Dick, always a team, according to those who know them, set out to give kids an opportunity to expand their world. They launched the West Michigan Aviation Academy. Pat Cwayna, an experienced school administrator, was recruited to be the school’s CEO. He says he agreed to take the job within five minutes of when he first met with Dick. “Dick and Betsy talk about ‘Opportunity’ for kids,” he says. “They want to give parents and kids choice to pursue their goals.”
Betsy and Dick provided the seed money to get the school off the ground—about $4.8 million—but it operates as a tuition-free public charter high school and is working toward become self-sustaining. Located on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, the school opened its doors in 2010 and now educates more than 600 students. The program focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math. Many will graduate with a pilot’s license.
Cwayna says some students drive 50 miles each way for the opportunity to go to the school. Others get on a bus at 6 a.m. and make multiple transfers to get to school on time. Students from over 40 school districts attend the academy. There are 100 students on a wait list. The school serves all students, regardless of need.
A significant portion of the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students speak 17 different languages at the school. “The first thing we do is teach [students] to be ladies and gentlemen,” says Cwayna. “The way we’re structured is to give these kids a chance.”
In a system where parents and students have made a choice to attend a school, the challenge is always that they can leave whenever they want and go elsewhere. Cwayna explains, “We treat these kids and their parents as our clients. They can leave and go back to their old school any time they want.” But Cwayna and the faculty have worked to deliver an education unavailable at other public schools.
Cwayna says Betsy and Dick DeVos care deeply about helping students succeed. “From their hearts, they want to improve kids’ lot in life,” he explains. Students’ lives have benefited from their work, and there’s “example after example after example. Many of which are never made public.”