Graphic via Shana Ford for The 'Gander
Graphic via Shana Ford for The 'Gander

A coalition of right-wing politicians, donors, and activists are exploiting real issues surrounding students’ mental health, an exodus of teachers from the workforce, and educational inequities to decimate Michigan’s public schools.


Need to Know

  • Betsy DeVos and her Republican allies are trying to defund public schools and divert up to $500 million in public dollars to private schools.
  • GOP politicians in the state legislature are also trying to censor how race and racism are taught in classrooms and create a culture of mistrust between teachers and parents.
  • Opponents of the efforts believe it’s an attempt to “defund and then discredit and then dismantle public schools for the benefit of for-profit private schools” in order to line the pockets of billionaires and millionaires.

MICHIGAN–“Teaching is the ultimate act of optimism.” 

That’s what Zeinab Chami believes. For the past 11 years, she’s dedicated herself to teaching because she believes in a better future and the ability of public education to provide Michiganders with a better life.

This belief isn’t some naive, abstract notion for Chami. Growing up in Dearborn, the child of Lebanese immigrants is a product of public schools herself. Her teachers at Fordson High School instilled in her a passion for literature, and her education opened up doors that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. 

Those doors ultimately led the lifelong Michigander back to the halls of Fordson as an English teacher trying to inspire future generations.

“I loved literature and I wanted to share that love with the kids in my community,” Chami said.

Despite years of budget cuts and inequitable funding, Chami has continued to teach because she knows that education can be the great equalizer that uplifts young people and improves Michigan families’ economic conditions.

“We devote our lives to the hope that there’s a better future,” she told The ‘Gander. “It’s just that politics gets in the way of that.”

Today, those politics are uglier than ever. For the past year, educators in Michigan and beyond have been under increasing scrutiny from a coalition of (mostly) right-wing politicians, donors, activists, and yes, some parents. This well-organized, well-funded alliance—spurred on by conservative special interests and right-wing media—is exploiting very real pandemic-related issues surrounding students’ mental health, an exodus of teachers from the workforce, an overemphasis on standardized tests, and educational inequities to take a wrecking ball to public schools.

Locally, this war on public schools includes both new and familiar lines of attack. Through a mix of bills, petition drives, and pressure campaigns, Michigan Republicans and their allies are trying to defund public schools and divert up to $500 million in public dollars to private schools; censor how race and racism are taught in classrooms; and create a culture of mistrust between teachers and parents.

Chami worries that these measures could deal a huge blow to an already struggling public education system that she says is in desperate need of more funding, not less, in order to meet the needs of the 90% of Michigan students who attend public schools.

Zeinab Chami
Image courtesy of Zeinab Chami

“I do think they’re trying to undercut public education,” Chami said. “Public education is not perfect; it is a broken system, but it is a system that can be fixed.”

The consequences of this broadside against public schools could be significant, according to former teacher and current state Rep. Darin Camilleri (D-Trenton).

“It’s clear that these policies do attack Michigan families and their freedom to have a school system—a good public school system—that is within reach and accessible to them and their kids,” Camilleri said. “When you attack public education and public schools, you are making it difficult for families to find success here in our state and you’re going to drive them further away from Michigan.”

‘This Is About Taking Money Away From Our Schools’ 

Trina Tocco is the director of Michigan Education Justice Coalition, but first and foremost, she’s a mother. Both of Tocco’s children are high-needs learners and require special education services—the kind that only public schools are legally required to provide. 

“There is no way that I can imagine them being able to go anywhere other than public schools to meet all the needs that they have,” said Tocco, whose children attend Ferndale public schools. 

Tocco wants her kids to learn in well-funded public schools that have more counselors and social workers on staff and provide adequate mental health support. That’s why she’s alarmed by Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos’ latest effort to siphon money from public schools and toward private schools.

The Michigan Constitution prohibits the use of public funds for private schools, including tax benefits or credits, but the Devos-backed Let MI Kids Learn petition drive would use an indirect funding mechanism. The plan would create scholarship funds that help eligible Michigan families pay for private school tuition or other educational costs—including the cost of home-schooling—and use state funds to give tax credits to people and corporations that donate to the funds.

DeVos and her family members are funding the effort to the tune of $350,000, and other Republican-aligned groups have donated nearly $1.3 million, according to state disclosure filings.

The plan could hit taxpayers hard, as it would cost Michigan $500 million in 2022 alone, and more than $1 billion each year by year five, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency. 

DeVos and her allies claim the effort would give parents more options and return some measure of control to them after the upheaval experienced during the pandemic, but such a defunding of public schools could prove devastating. During the 2019-2020 school year, 1.5 million students attended Michigan public schools. 

Tocco believes the effort would only harm families like hers. 

“Our schools don’t have the resources to currently support kids with a whole variety of needs,” Tocco said. “This is about taking money away from our schools … Call it vouchers, call it opportunity scholarships, whatever you want to call these things—I see it as taking away from what little my kid’s school already has.” 

DeVos has spent more than 20 years pushing taxpayer-funded charter schools in Michigan, promising they would lead to better outcomes for students. That, however, has not happened

“It’s very clear that the DeVos agenda has been to undercut public education and to make it inferior to private education.”

Zeinab Chami, english teacher at Fordson High School in Dearborn

Instead, Michigan’s charter schools have scored worse on tests than their public school counterparts. As of 2017, the state had the most for-profit charter schools in the US, spending billions of dollars over the years on poorly performing charter schools. As the Detroit Free Press reported, in some cases, that money was spent in insider deals that lined the pockets of friends and family members of charter school officials.

“The original purpose and promise of charter schools has been an abject failure,” said Greg Talberg, a social studies teacher at Howell High School. “We’re an extremely charter school-friendly state and yet it has not proven in any way, shape, or form to improve education, as a system.”

Talberg and Chami are both members of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s educator advisory council, which makes recommendations for legislation relevant to Michigan’s public schools. They oppose the DeVos measure.

“It’s very clear that the DeVos agenda has been to undercut public education and to make it inferior to private education,” Chami said. “Comparing where Michigan’s public schools used to be to where they are now, I would say [she’s] succeeded.”

In November, Whitmer vetoed a similar scholarship tax credit bill, but she may not get a say this time around. Supporters of Let MI Kids Learn are exploiting a loophole in the state constitution that would allow the Republican-led legislature to implement the policy without the governor’s approval. If organizers of the petition drive collect 340,047 valid signatures by June 1, the legislature can sign the measure into law without placing it on the actual election day ballot or getting approval from Whitmer. The governor would also be unable to veto the proposal.

“Michigan voters have resoundingly defeated multiple attempts by mega-donors like Betsy Devos to institute voucher schemes in Michigan,” said Thomas Morgan, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “That’s because Michiganders value their neighborhood, public schools and they know that funneling money into private, for-profit schools does nothing to promote equal opportunity for Michigan students.”

The Effort to Censor the Teaching of Race and History

DeVos’ voucher scheme isn’t the only threat to public education in Michigan. Despite spending years crowing about “cancel culture,” Republicans are now trying to censor how schools teach history and racism. 

Republican state lawmakers introduced bills last year to limit how Michigan educators talk about history and racism—an effort Autumn Butler, a Black mother of 12-year-old twins and co-executive director of civic engagement nonprofit Oakland Forward, finds deeply problematic.

“If the premise of the public school system is to educate people to be well-informed citizens,” said the Auburn Hills resident, “then in the US specifically, how can you ever have an open and transparent conversation if you’re not talking about race?”

The aforementioned legislation is among dozens of bills introduced across the country that explicitly or implicitly aim to ban the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), an academic legal framework that studies the impact of systemic racism in the United States at the graduate school level. CRT is not taught in Michigan K-12 schools, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans. 

One bill, which passed out of the House in November, would ban schools from teaching CRT, material from the New York Times’ 1619 Project on the origins of slavery, or other “anti-American and racist theories.” Schools that do not abide by the restrictions could lose 5% of their state funding. 

Another bill, currently sitting in a Senate committee, would effectively prohibit educators from discussing the ways in which a person’s gender or race, and the discrimination they suffer because of it, might make them see the world differently.

Both bills are opposed by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the State Board of Education, and the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

Tocco believes these proposals represent an attempt to cover up the darker aspects of American history. 

Trina Tocco and family
Image courtesy of Trina Tocco

“I want my kids to learn as much as possible from as much history as possible so that they can learn and do better,” she explained. “I would prefer them to actually learn even the things that I don’t agree with. I want them to learn all of it, so that way they can be better people when they become adults.”

Whitmer is likely to veto both bills should they pass the legislature, but Chami is worried about the bigger-picture impact of this crusade against the teaching of history and race.

“I think that this is actually just an attempt to whip up fervor and anger in the public. I think it’s a bogeyman and we’re so divided now along so many lines that it’s inevitably going to work, sadly,” she said. 

GOP’s Curriculum Transparency Bill Would Create a Culture of Fear and Mistrust

If the censorship bills demoralized Chami, the latest effort to limit how Michigan educators teach has made her question whether she would be able to even do her job anymore.

Earlier this month, a coalition of 11 House Republicans introduced a bill that would require public schools to make a list of all curriculum, classes, textbooks, literature, research projects, writing assignments and planned field trips easily accessible before the school year begins. Like the bill that aims to limit how teachers cover history and racism, school districts that fail to comply would lose 5% of their state funding. 

“They have spent the past year telling everyone to be afraid of CRT even though it wasn’t part of school curriculums to begin with. Now that they have created a sufficient amount of unwarranted fear and skepticism, they follow up with unnecessary legislation that serves to further amplify fears, divide communities, and undermine the important work being done by students and educators.”

Greg Talberg, social studies teacher at Howell High School

Chami said this change would make it “almost impossible to be effective” in the classroom. 

“I don’t teach curricula, I teach students, so I don’t have my curricula prepped a year ahead of time. I’m changing minute-by-minute,” she said. “Being a teacher requires [you] to be extremely nimble and responding to the students in front of you. Meaning today, my first hour looks very different from my fifth hour, even though they’re the same class.”

Talberg, the social studies teacher, criticized the bill as a “solution in search of a problem.” 

“They have spent the past year telling everyone to be afraid of CRT even though it wasn’t part of school curriculums to begin with,” he said. “Now that they have created a sufficient amount of unwarranted fear and skepticism, they follow up with unnecessary legislation that serves to further amplify fears, divide communities, and undermine the important work being done by students and educators.”

Sponsors of the bill argue it’s merely intended to help parents get access to information about their children’s education and prevent teachers from indoctrinating students on race and other issues with “radical” ideas, but parents like Tocco aren’t buying it. 

She said that she gets weekly emails from her children’s teachers describing the topics and subjects they learned and believes most teachers do that, at least for younger students. “I’d love to know what it is that parents don’t feel like they’re getting from schools right now,” Tocco said. 

If the bill were to pass, Chami said, she would most likely quit her job. “I love what I do. I am a very passionate teacher, but that would probably drive me to leave. It’s an injustice to our kids.”

Even if the bill fails, Tocco worries about what it represents. In states across the country, school boards and state legislatures are rushing to ban books from school curriculums and libraries. Whitmer provides something of a backstop to those attempts in Michigan with her ability to veto legislation, but should Republicans take control of the governor’s mansion this fall, who knows what could happen. 

“My kid came home the other day … truly interested in the story of Anne Frank,” Tocco said. “And it just dawned on me, I was like ‘My God, could it be that in a couple of years from now none of this is allowed in our school?’” 

The Crises Republicans Are Ignoring and Gov. Whitmer’s Efforts to Solve Them

While they stir up resentment and mistrust between parents and teachers, Republican politicians have been less vocal about the actual crises facing Michigan’s education system.

“We are losing about 10,000 school employees in our state each year, and we’re gaining about 5,000 coming into the forces every year.”

Thomas Morgan, spokesperson for Michigan Education Association

Adjusting for inflation, total K-12 education funding in Michigan fell by a whopping 30% between 2002 and 2015, according to a 2019 report from Michigan State University. Three-quarters of that drop was due to declining state support for schools, which occurred primarily under Republican leadership.

The lack of funding and years of low and stagnant pay has driven an exodus of teachers from the workforce, creating a staffing shortage that has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Teacher retirements were up 40% at the end of the 2020-21 school year, and one in five new teachers is leaving the profession within their first five years.

“We are losing about 10,000 school employees in our state each year, and we’re gaining about 5,000 coming into the forces every year,” Morgan, the MEA spokesperson, said. 

The issue is so dire that State Superintendent Michael Rice has called the teacher shortage “the single greatest issue facing Michigan schools and schoolchildren.”

Things are getting worse, too. A new survey from the MEA published last week found that 20% of active K-12 teachers want to leave the profession for another job within the next two to three years. Respondents cited staffing shortages, students’ mental health, low pay, and the ongoing attacks they’ve experienced over curriculums as reasons for wanting to quit. 

They also said raising pay, improving benefits, providing a signing bonus, and replacing the teacher evaluation system would help with retention, as would hiring more educators and providing more support for students’ mental health.

Whitmer is attempting to address many of those requests in her latest budget proposal—which would increase the per-pupil base funding by $435 per student, provide teachers with $2,000-plus retention bonuses each of the next four years, invest in teacher recruitment programs, and expand mental health care for children. Her plan is subject to approval from the Republican-led legislature.

The More Chaos They Can Sow … The More They Can Profit’

Whatever happens, 2022 could prove a decisive year for the future of Michigan’s public schools. Will the state begin a pivot toward fairly paying teachers, adequately staffing and funding schools, and providing quality mental health resources for students? Or will it funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools, censor the teaching of race and history, and use scare tactics to create mistrust and resentment between teachers and parents?

Morgan didn’t mince words about what he believes is really undergirding the GOP’s attack on public education. 

“The goal among people on the far right is to defund and then discredit and then dismantle public schools for the benefit of for-profit private schools,” he said. “We have some extremely wealthy people—Betsy DeVos being the most notable example—who see a tremendous business opportunity in education, but what’s standing in their way is the traditional public schools. They feel that the more chaos they can sow, the more cuts they can have made to our public schools, the more they can profit.”