Detroit school legislation backed by charter advocates was years in the making

Jun 8, 2016 at 3:11 pm
As the Michigan legislature gears up for summer recess, the state Senate will spend the next few days debating a package of Detroit Public Schools-related bills recently passed by the state House.

The bills, which have largely been criticized for their draconian policies against teachers and limited funding, have interesting supporters: charter school advocates. From the Great Lakes Education Project — a Michigan-based charter advocacy group, funded largely by the right-to-work, union-averse DeVos family — to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies — a coalition for charter school leaders — the legislation has big fans amongst those in direct competition with the district. 

While this may come as a surprise to some, the reality is the House bill has been years in the making. To understand this, look no further than former Metro Times reporter Curt Guyette's June 1996 cover story (scanned and re-republished below), "Born Again Schools: The Right's Vision for Public Education in Michigan."

In this exhaustively researched — and dare we say prophetic — piece, Guyette zeroes in on Gov. John Engler's 1993 introduction of charter schools and the billionaires funding this "school reform" movement. Not surprisingly, many of the names we recognize today as big backers of today's legislation (ahem, the DeVos family) were big financial supporters of the charter movement in the 1990s. 

Why would these billionaires be so intent on charter school expansion? As Guyette explains it, the four main financial backers of Michigan's charter school movement (the Richard & Helen DeVos Foundation, the Prince Foundation, the Orville and Ruth Merillat Foundation, and the Cook Charitable Foundation) are also supporters of a series of religious issues and groups that advocate for the "christianizing" of American politics. In short, charter schools were a step towards these individuals' ultimate goal of getting public funding for parochial schools. 

"To reach that goal, the groups promoting 'school reform' have mounted a relentless attack on the state's education system," Guyette wrote, later adding, "But that alone wouldn't be enough. To galvanize Michigan parents and taxpayers behind the idea of school choice, the reformers needed a Trojan horse that could effectively blur the lines between public and private education: charter schools." 

The story is a fascinating read, especially given the state of today's education debates. More remarkably, it points out that the city of Detroit has long been viewed as a laboratory for getting to the bigger goal of "parochaid." After Engler — who received $226,000 from the "Big Four" charter backers between 1989 and 1994 — passed charter legislation in 1993, some of the "school reform" groups also receiving funding from the "Big Four" began pushing for voucher schools (state funds for private schools) in Detroit.

"What we are proposing is a pilot program, focused on Detroit and other urban areas," the now-defunct TEACH Michigan Education Fund's Paul DeWeese told Guyette at the time. TEACH was a DeVos-funded organization that lobbied for changes in the state law and constitution to allow parents to choose between various competing schools. 

Read the piece in full below. We had to scan it out of a giant, bound book, so the inside columns are a bit warped (we recommend using the zoom-in button). Then check out our recent feature on the DeVos family's current funding of the House's charter school  DPS package, and then go read former Gov. Engler's recent quotes on why it's "morally wrong" to limit charter school growth in Detroit — and laugh/cry.   

Curt Guyette - Engler/DeVos 1996