God bless vouchers 

Call it the DeVos Family Value. It is immense and it is pervasive, the dollars bubbling up across Michigan’s political landscape like so many pools of spring water, each seemingly distinct but actually all drawing from the same underground reservoir of vast wealth.

It’s a multibillion-dollar family value built on Amway soap and a controversial direct-marketing distribution system. When combined with years of persistence and additional cash from a handful of like-minded compatriots, the family can provide the type of top-down funding that – for better or worse – could well transform this state’s public education system.

The issue is the Kids First! Yes! voucher initiative, and if you are not already familiar with it, get prepared for the coming firestorm. The bitterest of debates is about to erupt, with entrenched forces on both sides expected to spend millions of dollars cranking up the rhetoric to full volume in an attempt to influence people of every class, ethnic, religious and racial stripe, forcing them to choose sides on an issue that can appear anything but clear-cut.

Barring an unforeseen event of biblical proportions, voters will decide in November whether they want to amend the state constitution to allow public financing of private secular and religious schools.

Jeff Timmer, manager of the voucher campaign, confidently predicts that in the coming weeks 425,000 signatures – 100,000 more than the minimum needed – will be turned in to the Secretary of State’s office, earning the measure a place on the ballot alongside presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates.

Which makes KFY! one obvious place to observe the DeVos family value. But even here, the full worth is not readily apparent.

Getting those names wasn’t cheap. According to a year-end report filed with the Secretary of State’s office, slightly more than $1.2 million was collected in 1999 to fund the petition-gathering campaign.

How much did the DeVoses contribute?

According to campaign reports, Dick DeVos – son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, current president of the controversial direct-marketing company, and a former member of the Michigan State Board of Education – kicked in $50,000. His mother, Helen, and father, Richard Sr., each contributed $150,000. Then there’s his mother-in-law, Elsa Prince, whose late husband Edgar made his fortune in the auto parts business. She gave $200,000. The current president of Prince Corp., John Spoelhof, added $15,000. The Windquest Group, a management and investment company founded by Dick DeVos, loaned the campaign $35,000, bringing total contributions to $600,000, or nearly half of all cash raised for the effort.

The aid didn’t stop there. RDV Properties, another company that has Dick DeVos as its president, provided "in-kind" contributions of transportation services and furniture worth $10,000. Restoring the American Dream, a political action committee founded by Dick DeVos to support conservative political candidates, supplied staff valued at $6,292.

There’s also another force at work in the pro-voucher effort that isn’t reflected in campaign finance statements: A seemingly unconnected trio of Michigan nonprofit organizations – the Michigan Family Forum, Teach Michigan Education Fund and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy – that has been at the forefront of the movement for the past decade. Along with a shared interest in vouchers, these tax-exempt groups have something else in common: DeVos contributions play a significant role in their funding.

Multiprong attack

Between 1994 and 1997, according to federal tax records, DeVos, Prince and Amway foundations contributed more than $1.5 million to Teach Michigan, the Michigan Family Forum and the Mackinac Center, all of which are declared members of the Kids First! Yes! Coalition.

The Teach Michigan Education Fund, which in 1998 had a total revenue of $353,666 (with $150,000 of that income from a DeVos foundation), has been at the forefront of the school choice issue since the organization’s founding in 1990. A self-described "advocate for school reform," the group originally championed the charter school movement in Michigan. But as founder Dr. Paul DeWeese told Metro Times in 1996, the ultimate goal was to eventually overturn the state constitution’s prohibition against using public money to pay for private education.

The plan was to put a ballot initiative before voters in the ‘98 election. Instead of applying to the entire state, DeWeese said he anticipated a "pilot plan" of limited scope.

The ‘98 deadline was pushed back, and although backers are no longer calling it a pilot plan, the measure he envisioned – one that will likely have broader appeal to voters because it doesn’t apply to the whole state (see side story) – now appears to be a lock to appear on the November ballot.

Since the start, the strategy has been to change both public opinion and the state constitution, which was amended in 1970 to explicitly prohibit direct and indirect public support of both secular and religious private schools.

To gain public support, Teach Michigan, according to its Web site, uses "fact-finding missions, town hall meetings, talk-radio interviews, a syndicated education column, surveys and research ... to raise the quality of debate around reform and give decision makers the information they need to chart a new course for public education."

Joining Teach Michigan as a premier player in the voucher issue has been Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based free-market think tank that advocates free-market economic policies and the privatization of government services. With an annual budget more than $2 million the Mackinac Center is a force to be reckoned with.

"Education has been our No. 1 issue for some time now," says Joe Overton, Mackinac’s senior vice president. Along with a Web site (www.mackinac.org), the center puts out the Michigan Education Report, a quarterly publication distributed to "30,000 teachers, administrators, school board members, policy experts, and elected officials." It also has a speakers bureau and frequently provides guest commentaries to newspapers across the state.

And then there’s the Michigan Family Forum, a conservative, religious-based nonprofit affiliated with the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, one of the most influential players in the Christian-right movement. A proponent of abstinence-only sex education and marriage covenants that make divorce difficult, "education initiatives have always been a large part of the Michigan Family Forum," says executive director Michael Harris.

The religious aspect of vouchers, however, "is probably the least important" aspect of the entire issue, he insists. Along with producing op-ed pieces and similar materials, the group has a mailing list of 25,000 families and an annual budget of about $900,000. In 1997, Prince and DeVos foundations contributed a total of $200,000 to the group.

Faith in vouchers

Why is the DeVos family so committed to the issue of vouchers?

Dick DeVos didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this article. But the family’s involvement with the issue has been long-lasting and well-documented. It is so strong, in fact, that Betsy DeVos, Dick’s wife, has just resigned from her post as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party because of, according to numerous press reports, the rift caused when Gov. John Engler refused to throw his considerable support behind the voucher initiative. The thinking is that Engler opposes vouchers because the issue will shove the politically powerful Michigan Education Association into high gear and result in even more Democrats than usual flooding the polls in a presidential election year. Engler, who put his prestige on the line by coming out in favor of George W. Bush early in the race and is mentioned as being in line for a potential cabinet position or other high-ranking post in the administration should the Texas governor move into the White House, wants to see absolutely nothing jeopardize a Bush victory. Ironically, Bush is himself a supporter of vouchers. Nonetheless, Engler has put himself at odds with some of the state’s most politically influential movers and money shakers as a result of his opposition. And Betsy DeVos has given up an important position just weeks before Michigan’s GOP primary.

Which brings us back to the question: Why are vouchers so important?

There is, of course, an obvious explanation: The DeVos family has a deep, abiding concern for the children of this state, wants to see them educated in the best possible manner, and views the choice and competition offered by vouchers as the way to do that.

And then there is a more cynical, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, possibility.

Moral imperative

The tax reports showing where millions of dollars in charity contributions are doled out each year by the various foundations controlled by members of the DeVos family reveal an overarching emphasis on evangelical Christian organizations such as Focus on the Family, which is firmly rooted in the far right of the religious conservative movement. And mixed in with that is a healthy dose of support for think tanks and foundations that promote laissez-faire economic policy – the kind that wants to slash taxes, strip away government regulation of industry, roll back environmental regulations and let the invisible hand of capitalism rule.

In other words, follow the money and what you find is that the DeVos family embodies both aspects of the right wing, promoting strident social conservatism and an unfettered marketplace with almost equal vigor

On the economic front, the appeal of vouchers for fiscal conservatives has been on the map since at least the early 1960s, when economist Milton Friedman wrote Capitalism and Freedom. As noted by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Alex Molnar, Friedman was the first to posit that vouchers were a "way of getting the government out of public education." In his view, an educational market would be much more efficient at allocating educational resources than a system of government-run schools.

With the federal and state governments now ladling out hundreds of billions of tax dollars every year on public education, Friedman’s position is more popular than ever with eager entrepreneurs eyeing a windfall of unprecedented proportions if they can convince the public that vouchers are the way to go.

Then add in the fact that privatization will deplete both the ranks and coffers of the teachers unions – stalwart backers of Democratic candidates always – and you have the makings of a right-wing wet dream.

Right wing and a prayer

Just as the DeVoses conservative fiscal credentials are well established, so too are their evangelical bona fides. Year in and year out, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation alone contributes millions of dollars to Christian schools, anti-abortion groups and other foundations and religious-based groups that attack everything from feminism to homosexuality. In 1997, it gave more than $3.7 million to just one group, the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a major right-wing political player that, as one news account observed, advances the philosophy that "America was established for the glorification of God and the advancement of the Christian faith."

The voucher issue fits the DeVoses evangelical beliefs as comfortably as an old glove.

Because about 85 percent of Michigan’s private schools have religious affiliations, any broad-based voucher program is de facto a form of what back in the ‘60s and ‘70s was called "parochiad" – which led to the 1970 constitutional amendment. (In 1978, an attempt to overturn the amendment was voted down 2-1.)

Even if Michigan Family Forum’s Michael Harris is on the level when he says that promoting religious education is the least important aspect of this whole debate, it is difficult to believe that a Christian committed to spreading the word – which the DeVoses do with yet another foundation, Gospel Films Inc., which has a $7-million-a-year budget to provide "Christ-centered media resources throughout the world" – doesn’t view the whole issue with a certain missionary zeal.

"This is a completely unselfish initiative," says Harris about the DeVoses role in the long-running campaign. "Just because these people happen to be evangelicals doesn’t mean that’s why they contribute funding."

True. But its also true that the DeVoses efforts may end up allowing thousands of children to be taught the very same beliefs the DeVoses hold so dear, with the citizens of the state picking up the tab.

In his book Compassionate Capitalism, the senior DeVos opens up by citing a fundamental credo: "We believe that every man, woman, and child is created in God’s image, and because of that each has worth, dignity and unique potential."

What we will see come November is whether it is the DeVos family’s unique potential to bring the values of vouchers to the people of Michigan.

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