President-elect Donald Trump recently appointed Betsy DeVos, Michigan native and education activist, as the secretary of education, much to the disappointment many state stakeholders such as Steve Norton, executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools, an organization of Michigan parents working for public school funding.
“We were dismayed. But unfortunately not terribly surprised,” Norton said. “I believe (Trump) reached out to probably this most controversial, the most extreme option. I think it stunned a lot of people — I guess you could say we were stunned as well.”
DeVos and her husband, billionaire Dick DeVos, have been involved with numerous conservative efforts in Michigan, particularly the American Foundation for Children, which pushes for the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. DeVos has argued that this allows for less government regulation and permits parents to choose their children’s education, showing that public schools were not sufficiently meeting needs.
School vouchers are a system in which families are provided government subsidies in order to aid in covering the tuition for children to attend charter or private schools. The practice is highly criticized, as leading to the defunding of public schools.
In a statement following her appointment, DeVos stressed she was dedicated to bolstering education.
“I am very excited to get to work and to talk about my thoughts and ideas on making American education great again,” DeVos said. “The status quo is not acceptable. I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world.”
The DeVos’s were also donors to the Trump campaign.
Norton has worked with other Michigan parents and activists for increased funding of public schools while working primarily with grassroots organizations and state legislature. He said he frequently comes up against DeVos-funded groups such as the Great Lakes Education Project.
“It’s really stunning to see folks out there who honestly believe public schools ought to be eliminated and left only to the hopeless cases,” he said. “And everyone feels like they ought to be in private schools. The people, through their government, should have no role in actually operating the schools. I find that dismaying.”
He also noted DeVos served as the chairwoman for the Michigan Republican Party in the 1990s, and her connection to the party and her fortune make it easier to pass her policies and spread her influence.
“When they have such a strong influence on one political party and that political party controls the state government, they can do a lot of things they want to do,” Norton said. “And it has been a constant fight and I would say we probably lost more than we won.”
Erin Wright, a teacher at Ann Arbor public school Eberwhite Elementary, said she thought DeVos’s influence on the state with schools of choice and vouchers has led to an increase in racial and class segregation.
“I would say her actions at the state level have been detrimental to the public schools,” she said. “They have been funneling millions of dollars to charter schools which have little oversight and therefore are typically not successful and have sometimes have lower (scoring) schools than our public schools. And I am worried about that on a national scale.”
LSA junior Grant Strobl, national chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom board of governors, said he was thrilled to hear about DeVos’ appointment.
“Frankly, the ineptitude and corruption of the Detroit Public Schools has squandered the future of generations of Detroit’s children. Unfortunately, Detroit is not alone,” he wrote in an email. “Many public schools in this country are keeping children in the cycle of poverty. I am confident Betsy DeVos will be innovative, including the possible creation of a voucher program, to give each child the education they need and deserve.”
Michigan currently has a lenient schools of choice policy, giving citizens the ability to choose what district they want their children to attend. However, there is a ban on vouchers in the state constitution, which the DeVos family has been working to repeal.
Wright said DeVos’s hometown of Holland has had a high number of public schools shut down because of her influence.
In Holland, schools of choice have led to high rates of segregation and multiple public school shutdowns. According to the Holland Sentinel, white students started leaving Holland schools for less diverse districts, a phenomenon generally referred to as “white flight.” Michigan’s schools are also facing troubles academically, as the state is currently falling behind in early reading rates and has shown negative growth since 2003.
Norton noted that Michigan differs from most states as the state calculates a school’s budget based on how many students they have. For example, in the average Michigan school, a student is worth $7,500. If a child leaves, however, the money leaves with them and the public school loses the $7,500.
Wright said she thinks DeVos’s argument that competition in schools leads to more innovation is faulty, since most public schools, which do not have the resources to pursue different types of learning and unique programs. She added that she thinks DeVos is doing nothing to help public schools become more innovative.
“I am concerned (about) our public schools, while not perfect (they) still have wonderful attributes about them,” Wright said. “When we take resources away from them with vouchers and schools of choice and give money to other types of schools, the public schools that are struggling then have absolutely no chance to correct and do better. So we are just starving schools who are struggling and that’s not going to help them get better. That is just going to end the schools.”
Wright also said DeVos strongly supports Christian private schools. Both she and Norton agreed this could lead to a further strain on the separation of church and state doctrine. Wright added that it could create more funding for religious schools over public schools.
“I can’t foresee myself teaching at a private religious school ever,” Wright said. “I would be looking a different career. I hope that is not what happens to public schools. I hope that our country recognizes the value of all different types of schools, public schools being the main option provided for our country for decades of well-educated citizens.”
Public Policy junior Nadine Jawad, who is the co-president and co-founder of Books for a Benefit, a program that provides supplies and workshops to cities like Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Detroit, echoed the criticism.
“I think (DeVos’s policies) can be very, very detrimental to marginalized communities across the United States but especially in Michigan, like Detroit and other communities here,” Jawad said.
Jawad said the voucher system is only successful for families who can pay the difference between a public and private school education. Voucher money would come from the government and then families are left to pay the rest of the private school’s fee. This, Jawad argues, leads to more socioeconomic inequality.
“Even the idea of what she is trying to do is, I think, is terrible,” she said. “Right now, Michigan ranks 42nd in terms of public education quality. And if we are the 42nd state and we know that there are public schools that are lagging behind, it doesn’t make sense that she wants to create an even larger division and even more inequality.”
“DeVos has no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools,” she wrote on the AFT website. “The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan. Every American should be concerned that she would impose her reckless and extreme ideology on the nation.”
However, conservatives like Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) have said they appreciate DeVos for her small government policies. State Rep. Bill Huizenga (R–Mich.) said on his website DeVos’ policies would help children get quality education “no matter their zip code” and that she will “disrupt business as usual in Washington.”
Norton said his group’s next steps are to reach out to other education activists on a national level and inform others of their experiences in Michigan.
“(Our board hopes to) let people know precisely what this means,” Norton said. “I think that a lot of people in the country from other states didn’t really understand how extreme this choice was, how extreme the positions of DeVos and her husband and colleagues are.”
Though his appointment of DeVos has been met with much criticism, especially from educators and activists, Trump said in a statement that DeVos is “a brilliant and passionate education advocate” and will be able to “break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back.”