Head of DeVos-backed group resigns in wake of domestic abuse comments

The head of a school choice advocacy group founded by Betsy Devos, the newly minted U.S. Secretary of Education, has resigned in the wake of comments he made during a legislative committee hearing last week about domestic violence.

The official statement from the Great Lakes Education Project, where Gary Naeyaert was executive director, says the organization "is taking some time to reorganize to best continue the advocacy of quality school choice options for all Michigan K-12 students."

But Naeyaert drew fire after a Feb. 28 Senate Education Committee meeting in which he talked about his frustration with Natasha Baker, the state school reform officer whose office has drawn fire for identifying 38 chronically failing schools for potential closure.

"I wanted to shake her, like I like to shake my wife when every option in front of you is not possible. They’re all equally unattractive to you. Like when I ask her where to go to dinner and she says anywhere, and I say Steak and Shake, and she says, not Steak and Shake."

The statement from GLEP doesn't mention Naeyaert's comments, instead praising his tenure at the organization.

"We appreciate his nearly four years of leadership and passionate advocacy for school choice, and we wish him the best in his future endeavors," Jim Barrett, chairman of the board, said in a statement.

GLEP is a big backer of school choice and charter schools, and was instrumental in successful efforts to remove caps on the number of charter schools that can open in the state. Last summer, the group lobbied against the creation of a Detroit Education Commission that would have provided oversight of charter schools and traditional public schools in the city of Detroit. The creation of the commission was removed from a $617-million legislative package that passed the Legislature – resolving the debt in Detroit Public Schools.

DeVos created GLEP and was on its board of directors until shortly after she was nominated to her current position.

The liberal group Progress Michigan pounced on Naeyaert's comments, uploading a video on YouTube last week and issuing a news release.

"The head of GLEP will likely say he was making a joke, but in what world is domestic violence funny? He was addressing a committee in the Michigan Senate, but he seemed to think he was with Billy Bush on the Access Hollywood bus,” Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement.

"Naeyaert should apologize for his comments and explain why he thought invoking images of domestic violence was relevant in a discussion about education."

Naeyaert has addressed the comments on Twitter and Facebook.

"It was a poorly worded ad lib, for sure," Naeyaert said on Twitter. "I've apologized to Natasha Baker and my wife. I don't condone or support violence."

He made a lengthier apology on Facebook Sunday, again noting that his comments were a poorly worded ad lib.

"This is something a professional communicator should avoid, and I really let myself and GLEP down with this verbal gaffe," Naeyaert said.

He said both Baker and his wife have " excused the incident," saying "neither of them interpreted my comments as literal, and it's regrettable these few words have brought them into the fray."

"I appreciate the support from friends and colleagues who actually know me and understand I am not a domestic abuser nor do I advocate violence against women. People who don’t know me, and some who oppose the policy positions I advocate, have expressed their strong feelings as well, including a number of fundraising letters based on my mistake.

"While often provocative in the battle to help kids achieve more via education, passionate advocacy is no excuse for poor behavior. And while I could rail against the toxic nature of what passes for political discourse today, in the end, my remarks were inexcusable. For my part in contributing to this heightened negative atmosphere, I also sincerely apologize."

Detroit Free Press


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