President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos and her husband are major political power brokers in their home state of Michigan.
The two are major Republican donors – they’ve contributed a total of $50,000 dollars to the campaigns of senators whose votes she’ll need to be approved as a nominee – and in Michigan, they’ve spent millions of dollars over the years to lobby for big changes to Michigan schools, among other issues.
In 2010, they even opened up their own charter school on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, which kids flock to from 40 school districts.
But her legacy here is not all flattering, especially in Detroit, where educators on both sides of the aisle say her push for school choice and a free market for charter schools has not worked for Michigan kids.
“When I hear her name and I think about education, I think about choice without quality,” said Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, and a member of a coalition to help fix Detroit schools.
Detroit is the lowest performing big city in the country, but over the last 15 years, the entire state of Michigan has declined when it comes to student performance. And many say the push to deregulate charter schools – who can open them, close them, and where they can be placed – has played a major role in that downward turn.
Nearly half of charter schools here are ranked in the bottom of American schools, according to the Education Trust Midwest. Twenty percent were given a “D” or “F” grade. And 80 percent of charter schools in the state are now operating as for-profit institutions.
“We focused on the proliferation of choice and creating as many charters as we could as quickly as we could, rather than focusing on whether the schools that we were going to open were going to be high quality,” Allen said.
Take, for example, 11-year-old Judah Shelton. He has ADHD and was struggling in overcrowded public schools. By the end of the 3rd grade, he couldn’t even write his own name. By the time he was in the 5th grade, Judah had been to four different schools. His mom finally found school that worked for him but that school is 35 minutes away from their house.
“It’s somebody else’s neighborhood that I’m traveling to while passing three or four other schools and about six or seven closed schools to get to his school in a neighborhood that I don’t live in,” his mom, Arlyssa Heard said.
In Detroit, which has been plagued by decades of bad public schools, there is bipartisan support for charter schools. But there also bipartisan agreement that school choice here is not working.
“It’s not working for Detroit children, it’s not working for Michigan children, and I would dare say it’s not going to work for the nation’s children,” Allen said. “I would be really concerned if Michigan was the road map for the country. I actually think that we should be looking at Michigan and say, this is what we should not do.”
A lot of the blame has fallen to Betsy DeVos.
“In Michigan she’s viewed as the architect of the Detroit system for better or worse and obviously I and many others believe it’s for worse,” said Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “I think it’s very much a market mechanism argument.”
Since 2015, members of the DeVos family have given more than $2.6 million dollars in contributions to the Michigan Republican party and other candidates and political organizations in the state alone. Many here say that’s had a significant influence on education reform.
In 1994, the DeVos family was instrumental in passing legislation that attached funding to the student instead of the school district.
The idea that money follows the student began to fail when the student population started to decline, but the number of schools kept rising. Now schools – public and charter – are in bidding wars to attract kids and the money they bring, leading to campaigns to attract students with iPads, bicycles, and gift cards, often times in poor neighborhoods around the holidays.
In 2011, the DeVos’ education advocacy group – the Great Lakes Education Project – successfully lobbied for legislation that removed the cap on the number of charter schools and the number of organization that could operate them.
Michigan now lets more entities open charters than most other states. The result is that kids in charters in Detroit perform slightly better than kids in public school, but all are still well below the national average.
“We believe that there are certain elements of the charter schools in the city of Detroit that need more accountability,” said John Rakolta, a businessman who also sat on the committee to improve Detroit schools. Rakolta, a vocal Trump supporter, acknowledged that he and DeVos were on opposite sides of some issues over the future of Detroit’s schools but he supports her nomination and thinks that she’ll do a good job for kids. He said that over the years, she’s been a good advocate, even when they don’t agree.
But not all are so cordial about some of the ideological disagreements.
“Worst case scenario is that Michigan is representative of the future of the rest of the country as well,” said Pallas.
And deregulation is certainly on Donald Trump’s agenda.
Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, of which DeVos served as a board member until last week, said she isn’t to blame for Michigan’s failing schools. He said Detroit has long struggled with public education and charters have only helped students.
“Are we satisfied with the education product that’s coming out of Michigan? I would say that we are not,” Naeyaert said. “What we have is a lot of people, a lot of chefs in the kitchen, but not a clear consensus on what we want to achieve as a state in terms of education.”
He also says that DeVos is the perfect person for secretary of education if Donald Trump intends to keep his campaign promise of eventually eliminating the Department of Education.
“I think it’s safe to say that her reputation and experience as an outsider in terms of the traditional education infrastructure reinforces his position that we’re going to be doing things differently in the future than we have been doing them in the past, and I would say to people hold onto your seats.”
CNN’s Curt Devine contributed to this report.