Donald Trump may not be able to pay his debts. But the man who is vying for his replacement as the standard-bearer of Republican grievance politics appears to.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who received almost $500,000 in campaign contributions from the family of Betsy DeVos over the last four years, returned the favor, appearing on a “tele-townhall” with Trump’s former education secretary to promote her campaign to privatize Michigan’s public schools.
DeSantis was in national headlines just days after he sought to punish the Walt Disney Company for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” law and rejecting dozens of K-12 textbooks on fictitious ideological grounds, DeVos opened their conversation by telling viewers, “With your signature on the Let Michigan Kids Learn petition, we can bring some of that Florida success here to Michigan.”
Since late last year, DeVos has been pushing a petition drive for a ballot initiative, “Let MI Kids Learn,” which critics have described as a thinly-veiled effort to enact a school voucher system in Michigan through “an end-run around the normal legislative process,” as State Sen. Erika Geiss, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, told SalonThis was earlier in the month.
Technically speaking, Let MI Kids Learn would establish hefty tax credits for companies and individuals who donate to a pass-through organization that provides scholarships for children to support “school choice,” thus circumventing Michigan’s strict constitutional prohibition on state funding of private schools. Technically, the Let MI Kids Learn campaign is gathering signatures in order for the proposal to be placed on the Michigan ballot in November. In fact, it’s unlikely that will ever happen.
Democrats say that this petition is just the latest in a series of school voucher proposals that Michigan voters have overwhelmingly rejected — including a failed 2000 voucher push funded with about $5 million from the DeVos family — and point out that if enough signatures are gathered, neither the voters nor Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will be able to weigh in.
That’s because Let MI Kids Learn is being advanced by Republicans specifically to exploit a peculiar loophole in Michigan law that allows citizen petitions that meet a certain threshold of signatures to go directly before the state legislature, which can then pass them with a simple majority that is not subject to the governor’s veto. As Salon reported this April, Michigan Republicans are currently at work on signature drives for four such “ballot initiatives” — including two related to DeVos’ voucher scheme, another to restrict the state’s public health powers and one more to curtail voting rights — that they hope to pass through this unusual process.
This spring, a reported shortfall in signatures for the initiatives led DeVos’ Let MI Kids Learn team to make an unusual alliance with far-right activists to try to meet the petition quota. Now it appears that DeVos is hoping that DeSantis’ star power might help boost her campaign.
DeSantis & DeVos were on the Wednesday night teletownhall event. Amy Hawkins was also present. stafferLet MI Kids Learn, and also a publicist whose consultancy firm, Generation Strategies, has worked closely with numerous right-wing organizations, from advocacy groups like Citizens for Traditional Values to a variety of the influential conservative Hillsdale Collegecharismatic Christian right leaders such as Lou Engle and Lance Wallnau. Hawkins created a now-defunct website for 2020. VictimsofWhitmer.com, to support Unlock Michigan’s campaign to deprive the governor of her power to issue emergency public-health rules. Unlock Michigan 2, the follow-up campaign, used the petition process to limit the ability of other state agencies to address public safety crises.
DeSantis & DeVos suggested on the call that conservatives have a unique opportunity to dramatically alter American public education.
“I think there’s never been a better time to raise these issues with the general public because what you saw over the last two years is millions and millions of students throughout the United States denied opportunity to even go to school in person at all,” DeSantis said. “And that was almost entirely because of the power wielded by these entrenched special interest groups like the teachers union.”
The Sunshine State governor went on to say that these “special interests” “should not be in charge of our kids’ education,” and that parents should “[make] sure that power is taken away from those who have proven that they cannot be trusted to wield it.”
DeVos agreed, calling this moment “an absolutely prime and perfect time” to push for changes in education. “I’ve often cited Florida as a really prime example of continuing to push forward to give families more and more power and more and more choices over their kids’ education and futures,” she said. “And we can emulate what Florida has done to a large extent and go even further by making sure the Let Michigan Kids Learn initiative is successful.”
DeVos has searched for many years for the best ways to accomplish this. redirectTransfer taxpayer money from public schools into private and religious institutions. She famously called upon fellow wealthy Christian activists to embrace her call in 2001. “school choice” as a more efficient means of advancing “God’s kingdom” than simply funding private Christian schools. She was a strong advocate for the expansion in Detroit of for-profit charter schools. This resulted in increased corruption and increased segregation. Millions of dollars were also channeled to charters which never opened.
In early 2020, as Trump’s secretary of education, DeVos directed COVID-19 relief funding toward private schools. After a 2020 Supreme Court decision,Espinoza V. Montana Department of Revenue, which mandated that states that allow public funding of private schools must also include religious schools in those programs, she urged other states to quickly pass more “school choice” to allow more students “the freedom to pursue faith-based education.”
Although DeVos and her supporters claim that Let MI Kids Learn would give parents $8,000 per child to spend on education as they see fit — from buying laptops to paying for tutoring or school tuition — in reality, only families with kids in private schools would see anything close to that level of support. Private school families might be eligible to $7,800, but children in public schools would only receive a maximum benefit $500. Democrats also estimate that, over five years, Let MI Kids Learn would drain $1 billion from the state’s pools of public school funding.
Sam Inglot, deputy director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan, part of a counter-campaign called “For MI Kids, For Our Schools,” described the townhall conversation as whitewashing the catastrophic effect DeVos’ plan would have on both public school and general public services budgets in the state.
“This has been DeVos’ MO for decades,” said Inglot. “And now it’s happening alongside a lot of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and attacks on honesty in education and accurately teaching the history of America.”
Not only is this “backdoor voucher scheme” insidious, Inglot continued, but so is the process by which DeVos, and the Michigan legislators she has funded for years, are pushing the initiative. “This is legislation that went through the normal checks and balances of government and was vetoed,” he said. “Essentially what they’re trying to do is buy a piece of legislation.” They are also, he said, trying to circumvent the will of the public. “If the organizers [of Let MI Kids Learn] have their way, the people of Michigan will never have a chance to vote on this.”
Many Republican politicians and advocates have become more open about the long-term goals of their educational culture wars over the past year. In 2021, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran declared that Republicans would win the political “war” in education, while The plan was to attract so many students from public schools that they no longer exist. damage to the systemIt would be permanent. This month, Chris Rufo, the Manhattan Institute fellow who turned “critical race theory” into an amazingly effective political scapegoat, bluntly explained that “to get universal school choice you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”
State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, the Democratic minority vice-chair of Michigan’s Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, said that after the difficult time many parents had during the pandemic, “DeVos sees an opportunity here… She smells blood in the water.”
Polehanki also warned that the Let MI Kids Learn initiative is being pushed by paid petition circulators who aren’t legally required to accurately describe the measures they’re promoting. Some have lied, claiming the measure would “help special-ed kids in Michigan.”
“That’s absolutely legal and it’s absolutely what they might do,” she continued. “But what you’re really signing is one of a long line of attempts by Betsy DeVos and her GOP mega-donors to flout the Michigan Constitution.”