Remember Betsy? Michigan education leaders blast Trump for ‘abandoning’ public schools

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By Kyle Kaminski

April 23, 2024

Michigan lawmakers and teachers are rallying behind President Joe Biden—and reflecting on a rough period for public schools after Trump put Betsy DeVos in charge.

LANSING—With about six months until absentee ballots start arriving in millions of mailboxes across Michigan ahead of the November presidential election, state lawmakers and teachers are drawing a sharp contrast between President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump.

And when it comes to which candidate is more focused on providing support for Michigan’s public schools, Biden and Trump’s track records speak for themselves, said Mitchell Robinson, a member of the Michigan State Board of Education and professor at Michigan State University.

“Look no further than Trump’s tapping of Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education,” Robinson said during a press conference in downtown Lansing on Tuesday morning. “That should tell you all you need to know about how much Trump values our education system.”

This week’s event in Lansing was part of a national “Educators for Biden-Harris” campaign that aims to engage teachers and parents—all with a focus on how Biden’s administration is strengthening the public education system, advocating for students, and supporting teachers.

Robinson was joined by state Sen. Dayna Polehanki and state Rep. Matt Koleszar—both former teachers—and officials from the Michigan Education Association, a labor union that represents about 120,000 teachers, support professionals, and higher education employees statewide.

And while Robinson was the only one to mention DeVos by name on Tuesday, each of them took time to reflect on her time in office under Trump—and what it was like to have a billionaire with no real public education experience put in charge of running public education nationwide.

“President Biden actually put in a real educator—Miguel Cardona—as his Secretary of Education,” said Brett Smith, vice president at the Michigan Education Association. “And I will not make a comment on who Donald Trump put in as Secretary of Education.”

Remember Betsy?

Michigan billionaire and longtime Republican benefactor Betsy DeVos was appointed by Trump to become the Secretary of the US Department of Education in 2016. She served in the role for nearly Trump’s entire term, resigning in 2021 following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

As a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and chair of the school voucher advocacy group American Federation for Children, DeVos spent decades serving as a key donor or leader for a long list of organizations with missions centered on instilling religion in education and privatizing public schools under the misleading banner of “school choice.”

She has also been a driving force behind the spread of charter schools in Michigan, most of which have recorded student test scores below the state average, reports the Washington Post.

And with no practical experience in teaching or school governance (or any other relevant public education credentials), DeVos was among the most controversial appointments announced by Trump—and a clear indication of where supporting public schools landed on Trump’s priority list.

“I don’t need to remind Michigan residents about the previous Secretary of Education,” Koleszar added. “Thankfully, we have gone on to Secretary Cardona, who is doing a magnificent job.”

‘Roadblocks Every Chance He Got’

While in office, DeVos repeatedly clashed with Democratic lawmakers over just about every policy related to funding public education—including pushing for a voucher-like program in Michigan in 2022 that threatened to divert $500 million in tax revenues for public schools.

As Education Secretary, she repeatedly proposed deep cuts to federal education spending. And DeVos also faced criticism when she argued that the US Department of Education that she once led “should not exist” during a 2022 speech at an ultra-conservative Moms for Liberty summit.

This week, Robinson said he’s “terrified” of someone like DeVos being able to retake the reins of the Department of Education, if Trump manages to win the presidential election in November.

“I’m tired of teachers and school board members being targeted with made-up talking points about [critical race theory], litter boxes, school bathrooms, and banning books,” he said. “It’s exhausting and counterproductive, and it’s all because the other side of the aisle has no positive vision for public education because their real goal is to destroy it—or at least sell it off for parts.”

Polehanki and other lawmakers also credited Biden’s administration for mitigating the damage caused by DeVos and Trump’s administration—namely by investing $170 billion in public schools, marking the largest federal investment in public education in American history.

The American Rescue Plan included at least $5 billion to support Michigan schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. And Biden’s efforts to cancel student loan debt for 870,000 educators and public service workers has also served as a “lifeline” for Michiganders, lawmakers said.

“Teachers are the backbone of our future and if we don’t support them, the seams of our society could start to fall apart,” Polehanki said during this week’s press conference. “They know that Biden is trying to make their lives easier, while Trump put up roadblocks every chance he got.”

Koleszar also credited Biden for the “most significant” gun safety legislation in nearly 30 years, which he said shows that classroom safety is a “top priority” for the Biden administration.

“I have zero doubt though, however, that a second Donald Trump presidency would put all of this progress at risk,” Koleszar said during the press conference. “Donald Trump abandoned our educators and our students. We’re not going to give him the opportunity to do that again.”

A poll coordinated in 2022 by Lake Effect and Progress Michigan found that only 8% of Michiganders had a favorable opinion of DeVos, while 50% had an unfavorable opinion. About 44% of those polled said support from DeVos would make them less likely to support a candidate, compared to just 4% who were more likely to support DeVos-backed candidates.

“What Trump doesn’t understand is that teachers are tenacious. We know how to get to work and we know how to advocate for ourselves,” Polehanki added. “So, Trump has got another thing coming if he thinks we’re going to forget how he treated us while he was in office.”

The presidential election is Nov. 5. Early voting begins on Oct. 26. Absentee ballots will start being mailed on Sept. 26. Click here for more information and ensure you’re registered to vote.

READ MORE: Anti-public school billionaire bankrolls Mike Rogers’ Senate campaign

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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