Billionaire DeVos family created Wild West of the charter movement

Better education is the #1 ingredient for economic success. I ran for the Michigan State Board of Education after doing national education consulting, including work for the U.S. Department of Education on developing quality charters, and running a community non-profit in Flint dedicated to school improvement in the ‘90s.

DeVos spent $1.5 million to ensure there was no quality control.

When I joined the board in 2000, there was much we were doing on a bipartisan basis. Our feeling was, let’s raise standards, increase accountability and support better teacher quality, early childhood education and higher education. We were hoping to use quality charter schools as they were intended: to increase innovative educational offerings, particularly in areas where they’re needed. There was a cap on the number of charters that could be sponsored by universities, and charters could only be approved if they delivered quality education and were run by quality operators.

In 2000, just as charters were beginning to expand in Michigan, the DeVos family bankrolled a state ballot initiative supporting vouchers, and it failed. Then they started a long-term game plan of trying to get vouchers by other means. They organized the Great Lakes Education Project, which was a very strong political donation vehicle that promoted school choice and began to have more and more influence on public debate. It’s very smart public relations, because everybody wants choices. But any marketplace, whether it’s Wall Street or education, needs to be regulated.

In 2010, the DeVoses put the pedal to the metal and engineered a Republican takeover of the state Legislature. They lobbied hard and spent a lot of money to lift the cap on charters. The legislature rejected all common-sense quality control measures we proposed, like: Let’s make sure these charter operators have some track record of running educational programs or successful schools before we let them open more schools. DeVos spent $1.5 million to ensure there was no quality control.

The Michigan school funding system provides a foundation grant of $7,000 per pupil. But Michigan has a declining population of students. When the charter cap was blown apart by DeVos operators six years ago, we saw charters opening willy-nilly with no rhyme or reason. Too many schools were chasing too few dollars. We saw traditional public schools hemorrhaging 20 to 30 percent of their population, which means diminished resources for educators, larger class sizes and cuts to art and music and special education. Now 85 percent of the state’s charters are run by for-profit companies, and there is still no constraint on who gets to sell education in Detroit. It’s a Wild West of unfettered choices that don’t educate kids.