Ron DeSantis Joins Betsy DeVos in Push to Privatize Michigan Public Schools

Donald Trump may not pay his debts, but the man vying to replace him as standard-bearer for Republican grievance politics apparently does.

Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has received close to $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.

Just days after DeSantis made national headlines by seeking 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 Salon earlier this 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. Also technically speaking, the Let MI Kids Learn campaign is gathering signatures to place the proposal on the ballot in Michigan this 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 even get the chance 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.

At the Wednesday night tele-townhall event, DeSantis and DeVos spoke alongside Amy Hawkins, a staffer at Let MI Kids Learn and also a publicist whose consulting firm, Generation Strategies, has worked with numerous right-wing groups, from advocacy organizations like Citizens for Traditional Values to the influential conservative Hillsdale College to charismatic Christian right leaders like Lance Wallnau and Lou Engle. In 2020, Hawkins launched a now-defunct website, VictimsofWhitmer.com, to support the Unlock Michigan campaign, which sought to strip the governor of her ability to issue emergency public health rules. This year, a follow-up campaign, Unlock Michigan 2, is also using the petition process in hopes of limiting the ability of other state bodies to address public health crises as well.

On the call, DeSantis and DeVos suggested that conservatives have a unique window to radically alter public education in America.

“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 sought for years to find ways to redirect taxpayer money from public schools to private and religious institutions. In 2001, she famously called on fellow wealthy Christian activists to embrace “school choice” as a more efficient means of advancing “God’s kingdom” than simply funding private Christian schools. In Michigan, she used her influence to advocate for the expansion of for-profit charter schools in Detroit, which resulted in increased segregation and massive corruption, as millions of dollars were channeled to charters that 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. While private school families might be eligible for $7,800 in funding, those with children in public schools could only receive a maximum benefit of $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.”

Over the last year, many Republican politicians and advocates have grown surprisingly forthcoming about the long-term goals of the educational culture wars they promote. In 2021, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran declared that Republicans would win the political “war” in education, while sketching out a plan to lure so many students out of public schools that the damage to the system 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.”