Betsy DeVos Uses a Willing Public School Superintendent as a Privatization Prop
On March 13, 2017, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tried to sell her interest in public schools. However, even as she spoke to the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), a coalition comprised of 69 urban public school districts, DeVos could not help trying to sell school choice.
Most of her 12-minute speech focused on her established, school choice bent couched in that seemingly-benign, parent-empowerment, for-the-children language that leaves her audience with the unsettling feeling that even though DeVos tried at moments to sound supportive of public schools, her support is suspiciously qualified:
And one of those quality options should be a great public school. I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating: I support great public schools, and I support great public school teachers—because I support students—all students.
DeVos supports *great public schools,* and we know it’s true because she says so today.
But DeVos also has a public school superintendent as a fan, and she was willing to throw that name out there to her audience of urban public school superintendents:
For years, I mentored at-risk girls who were attending an urban public school in Grand Rapids. I’ve witnessed the impact one person can have on a child’s life, and I’ve seen the changes in a community when it chooses—often through local initiatives that include public and private partnerships—to come together and invest in the rising generation.
This is what motivated me to develop a friendship and relationship with Teresa Weatherall Neal, the superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools.
I have supported and continue to support her work to transform Grand Rapids Public Schools to better serve the students of Grand Rapids.
DeVos referenced her mentoring at a “public school” during her January 17, 2017, confirmation hearing. Neither then nor in her CGCS speech has she divulged the name of that school. She has also not disclosed just how much time, exactly, she spent “mentoring,” or what, exactly she means by the term.
Before her CGCS audience, she brushes past such details and proceeds to name-drop Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools– the same Neal who was planning to attend DeVos’ confirmation hearing at the request of DeVos’ school choice nonprofit, American Federation for Children (AFC). AFC agreed to pay for the trip and even provided talking points.
Email correspondence regarding the AFC-Neal exchange began with a congratulatory message from Neal to DeVos, as Target 8 reports:
The documents start with a letter from the superintendent to DeVos, congratulating her.
“If there is ever anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to call me,” Weatherall Neal wrote.
Weatherall Neal refused to comment on Thursday, but praised the selection in an earlier interview.
“I thought she’d be a great pick,” she said. “She’s knowledgeable about education; she’s concerned about children. She’s been a great supporter of mine and the Grand Rapids Public Schools.”
“This is a great win for children,” she added.
However, DeVos’ signature school choice push in Michigan has been anything but “a win” for Grand Rapids Public Schools, as Neal notes in MLive in August 2016:
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The scenario playing out in Kent and Ottawa counties and across Michigan, is exactly the hefty price tag superintendents say school choice carries: The destabilization of traditional school systems. …
Urban schools systems statewide and nationally have particularly been affected by choice students rising as a share of total enrollment.
Grand Rapids Public Schools, the largest district in the West Michigan, has been hit the hardest by school choice. About 39 percent of public school students living in the city are not enrolled in their home district.
“The current system isn’t fair and creates winners and losers,” said GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, who said the district’s losses likely would be higher had it not implemented a transformation plan that creates more options for families and is expanding popular programs.
“We had 30,000 fewer students in the state of Michigan, yet we increased all of the charter schools. Some of these for-profit charter management companies are making millions off the backs of poor children.”
Five months later, in January 2017, Neal congratulated Michigan’s school privatization first lady Betsy DeVos and called her positioning as US ed sec “a great win for children.”
But Neal’s open support for DeVos began even sooner than DeVos’ confirmation hearing in January 2017. In November 2016, only three months after calling out the problems for her district due to increasing charter schools. In a November 2016, MLive article, Neal awkwardly spins the negative influence of Michigan school choice upon her district as a positive:
Neal acknowledges the toll Michigan’s school of choice policy has taken on urban school districts like her own over the past 22 years when the lawmakers set it in motion with school finance reform in 1994.
“It has been hurt by choice (but) we have also become a much stronger district and able to compete,” Neal said.
School choice is harmful but it’s not. Got it?
Such contradiction begs searching for a financial incentive.
The MLive excerpt above is included in this Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) post, which also includes details of the financial incentives for Neal to support DeVos. An excerpt:
The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation contributed between 2012 – 2014 contributed $1,509,120 directly to the Grand Rapids Public Schools. If you add the money they contributed to the University Prep Academy, located on South Division, the President of Amway and his wife contributed $550,000 during the same 3-year period.
Then there are programs that align with the GRPS, such as the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, which provides grants to the GRPS. The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed $1,496,413 to the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. Maria DeVos also just happens to sit on the board of this foundation.
GRIIL includes more information about the DeVos influence and money interwoven into programs associated with Grand Rapids Public Schools and concludes the following:
So, you can see why Teresa Weatherall Neal expressed such admiration for Betsy DeVos being chosen as the Secretary of Education. The DeVos family is deeply embedded in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, through their funding and the organizations they have had a hand in creating.
In order for Neal to protest the negative influence of school choice upon the public school district she leads even as she wholeheartedly supports DeVos’ involvement in both Michigan and DC, Neal must compartmentalize or consciously ignore the DeVos role in damaging Michigan’s public schools.
As the November 2016 MLive article notes, the DeVoses are behind Neal’s transition plan for her district:
The DeVos clan, especially Amway President Doug DeVos and his wife, Maria, have channeled millions from their foundations to programs that align with Neal’s goals. …
Neal thinks DeVos can hold up GRPS as a model of what can be done at other struggling districts.
“I’m really excited for the children across the nation,” Neal said. “She has been a wonderful supporter of GRPS and our transition plan. She knows education. She knows what it is going to take in order for our kids to be helped.” …
Neal sees the politically conservative family’s focus on education as their commitment to the “greater social good.”
Betsy DeVos will continue to push for school choice. School choice will continue to destabilize public school systems.
DeVos’ pro-school-choice bent and her supposed support for “great public schools” are irreconcilable.
Whether from the mouth of DeVos herself or from the mouth of a DeVos-funded superintendent, pretending and promoting that it will all work out anyway is a farce.