Bought and paid for.
Back in June, that’s how I described the Detroit school legislation that passed in Lansing — a filthy, moneyed kiss to the charter school industry at the expense of the kids who’ve been victimized by those schools' unaccountable inconsistency.
And now, through the wonder of campaign finance reports, we are beginning to see what it took to buy the GOP majority in Lansing, just how much lawmakers required to sell out Detroit students’ interests.
The DeVos family, owners of the largest charter lobbying organization, has showered Michigan Republican candidates and organizations with impressive and near-unprecedented amounts of money this campaign cycle: $1.45 million in June and July alone — over a seven-week period, an average of $25,000 a day.
The giving began in earnest on June 13, just five days after Republican members of the state Senate reversed themselves on the question of whether Michigan charter schools need more oversight.
There’s nothing more difficult than proving quid pro quos in politics, the instances in which favor is returned for specific monetary support.
But look at the amounts involved, and consider the DeVos’ near-sole interest in the issue of school choice. It’s a fool’s errand to imagine a world in which the family’s deep pockets haven’t skewed the school debate to the favor of their highly financed lobby.
And in this case, it was all done to the detriment of children in the City of Detroit.
Deep pockets, long arms
Back in March, the Senate voted to place charter schools under the same authority as public schools in the city, for quality control and attention to population need and balance, in line with a plan that had been in the works for more than a year, endorsed and promoted by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
But when the bills moved to the state House, lawmakers gutted that provision, returning a bill to the Senate that preserved the free-for-all charter environment that has locked Detroit in an educational morass for two decades. After less than a week of debate, the Senate caved.
Even then, several legislators complained that the influence of lobbyists, principally charter school lobbyists, was overwhelming substantive debate. The effort was intense, they said, and unrelenting.
Now we know what was at stake.
Five days later, several members of the DeVos family made the maximum allowable contributions to the Michigan Republican Party, a total of roughly $180,000.
The next day, DeVos family members made another $475,000 in contributions to the party.
It was the beginning of a spending spree that would swell to $1.45 million in contributions to the party and to individual candidates by the end of July, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
The polite term for this kind of reflexive giving is transactional politics; it is the way things work not just in Lansing but in Washington, and in political circles in all 50 states.
But the DeVos family has a singular focus on one issue, school choice. And given Michigan’s murky campaign finance laws, it's harder to quantify what’s going on until long after it has happened.
The substantive tragedy here, of course, is much starker.
The legislation the DeVos family bought preserves a unique-in-the-nation style of charter school experimentation in Detroit.
If I wanted to start a school next year, all I’d need to do is get the money, draw up a plan and meet a few perfunctory requirements.
I’d then be allowed to operate that school, at a profit if I liked, without, practically speaking, any accountability for results. As long as I met the minimal state code and inspection requirements, I could run an awful school, no better than the public alternatives, almost indefinitely.
That’s what has happened in Detroit since the DeVos family helped push the charter law into existence 20 years ago.
On average, the schools don’t perform on state and national tests much better than public schools. A few outliers have reached remarkable heights. A few have done much worse. And charter advocates have become crafty liars in the selling of their product.
They’ll crow, for instance, that nearly twice as many of their kids do as well on national math assessments as the public schools. What they don’t tout are the numbers, which show the public schools are 8%, and the charters at 15%.
Regardless of outcome, none of the charter school establishment has been subject of a formal oversight and review that would reward the best actors and improve the worst.
Education should always be about children. But in Michigan, children’s education has been squandered in the name of a reform “experiment," driven by ideologies that put faith in markets, alone, as the best arbiters of quality, and so heavily financed by donors like the DeVos clan that nearly no other voices get heard in the educational conversation.
The legislation debated this spring in Lansing was the first meaningful effort to change that — not to punish charter schools for independence, but to subject both charter and public schools to a rational means of review and improvement.
There is no conscionable objection to this kind of basic oversight. But the DeVos family’s purchase of the souls of the GOP majority stalled progress for children in this state’s largest city.
In all the other states where I’ve lived — Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky — it is impossible to imagine such a tightly held interest wielding that much influence.
Why allow it?
Beyond the substantive problem, there is the profound question of the sanctity of our political process.
Is this how we do business in Michigan? Is this how we reach conclusions about important matters of public policy? The DeVos family isn't breaking any law. The question we have to ask ourselves is why our laws permit this measure of single-interest dominance in politics.
Back in the spring, I suggested that the legislators who sold out to the DeVos family be rounded up, sewn into burlap bags with rabid animals, and tossed into the Straits of Mackinac.
My hyperbole was fueled by indignant outrage. I meant it to be. This kind of craven betrayal by public officials, so naked and with so much consequence for vulnerable citizens, ought to make all of us indignant, and outraged.
Now that we know the other part of the story — the DeVos family's apparent purchase of our state's GOP — it should do more than outrage us.
It should motivate us to make change.
Detroit Free Press