FILE PHOTO: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a roundtable discussion in Tiger Stadium on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, La., Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
FILE PHOTO: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a roundtable discussion in Tiger Stadium on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, La., Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

This is Part 5 of a 5-part series. Read Part 1 here. Here’s Part 2. Here’s Part 3. Here’s Part 4.

Part 5 is an opinion, written by Managing Editor Lisa Hayes, whose views do not necessarily reflect those of The ‘Gander Newsroom.

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education in 2017, she had so little support that Vice President Mike Pence’s vote was needed to break the 50-50 tie. That fact is particularly relevant considering her family had donated to 23 of the senators voting on her nomination. Twenty-three.

If you’ve read DeVos’s frequently referenced 1997 op-ed in “Roll Call” newspaper, you probably have a hard time separating that number from her words:

“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party. Occasionally a wayward reporter will try to make the charge that we are giving this money to get something in return, or that we must be purchasing influence in some way…. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

“We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.”

Over the past three decades, DeVos has been a key donor or leader in a long list of organizations with missions centered on instilling religion in education, and privatizing education under the misleading banner of “school choice.” Read together, their names sound like a Boggle game of the same words, rearranged in different variations: the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Education Freedom Fund, Children First America, All Children Matter, the Alliance for School Choice, the American Federation for Children, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the American Education Reform Council. Others on her donor roll include the Great Lakes Education Project, the Grand Rapids Christian School Association, Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc., Potter’s House school, the “nonprofit education news site” The 74 Media, the Ada Christian School Society, the Rehoboth Christian School Association, Christian Schools International, and GREAAT Schools, Inc.

We get it. Betsy DeVos has an agenda, and it’s particularly focused on Michigan—where the billionaire and her family live, alongside the rest of us.

But here in Michigan, voters reject programs like Let MI Kids Learn. In 2000, Kids First! Yes!, the group behind “Proposal 1″—an initiated constitutional amendment seeking to lift Michigan’s ban on funding for students attending non-public schools, and to allow students to use tuition vouchers to attend non-public schools—spent $14 million to push the campaign. Funding came largely from the DeVos family, the Catholic Church, and Wal-Mart heir John Walton. But clear, inexpensive voter education efforts helped Michigan citizens have their say at the polls. Overwhelmingly, voters turned down “Proposal 1.”

In 2021, Let MI Kids Learn’s two bills, introduced by Republican senators, passed the GOP-majority state Senate and House but were vetoed by Gov. Whitmer.

“Simply put, our schools cannot provide the high-quality education our kids deserve if we turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy,” Whitmer said in her veto letter.

At the kick-off event for the Let MI Kids Learn’s citizen initiative in February, DeVos—who made at least $225 million during her time in the Trump administration—indicated that the veto wasn’t slowing her down. “I’m more fired up now than ever. … It’s hard to believe anyone would oppose this opportunity,” she said, as reported by Michigan Advance.

For this series, the ‘Gander’s staff read through stacks of reports, analyses, studies, and expert opinions. What they concluded is that there’s no shortage of evidence on the harm this program would have on Michigan’s public schools. The question we’re left with is: Why?

DeVos and Let MI Kids Learn have spent millions on efforts to gather just 340,047 signatures.

Poll after poll shows that Michigan voters don’t want voucher programs. 

And yet this latest voucher package and tax-credit incentive continues to march its way toward the friendly arms of a Republican-majority state Legislature and their indirect initiative power. Why?

There is something in it for someone. Follow the supporters. Follow the donors. Follow the legislators. Even if the proposal doesn’t end up on the ballot, they will.