national spotlight

In contentious interview, Betsy DeVos’ husband Dick DeVos says ‘everybody wins’ with charter schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of VICE on HBO
Betsy DeVos' husband Dick DeVos tells HBO's VICE documentary that charter schools have had a positive effect on education in Michigan. "The nature of competition in education is that potentially everybody wins."

The state of Detroit schools will again be in the national spotlight tonight when HBO airs a 14-minute documentary on the influence that charter schools — and the DeVos family — have had on traditional public schools in Michigan.

The national media has returned repeatedly to Detroit’s education crisis in recent years, especially in the 18 months since Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos became President Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary. The New York Times and other outlets have all written about the role DeVos, an influential power player who once called for the dissolution of Detroit’s main district, has had on Detroit schools. (The Atlantic has run some Chalkbeat stories on the issues as well.)

What sets the documentary from HBO’s VICE series apart is the combative interview it features with DeVos’ husband, Dick DeVos, on the effects that charter schools have had on education in Michigan.

“My hope is that the effect has been positive,” said DeVos, a businessman and philanthropist who was the state’s Republican nominee for governor in 2006. “The effect has been that traditional schools, having been confronted with an alternative that they were never confronted with before … [will] take a look at themselves and say, ‘How can we be special, too?’”

Correspondent Gianna Toboni spends the first part of her report in Detroit, talking with students at Cody High School who lament their school’s lack of resources. She drives past several shuttered school buildings, noting the boarded-up windows, and lays the blame for those problems squarely on charter schools. She primarily leaves out other factors that contributed to Detroit’s problems, such as population loss and the financial fallout from job losses, the mortgage crisis, and other challenges.

PHOTO: Courtesy of VICE on HBO
Correspondent Gianna Toboni interviews parent advocate Aliya Moore and her daughter outside a shuttered Detroit school.

Toboni tells DeVos that the low-income parents she spoke to in Detroit would be offended to hear him talk about the positive effects of charter schools.

“They feel that the influence that your family has over the Michigan legislature has caused their public schools to be shut down,” Toboni tells DeVos, later adding “the nature of competition … is that not everyone wins.”

DeVos stammers a bit as he responds but notes that charters have created options for families.

“Nobody is forcing them to go to a charter school,” he said. “If parents weren’t choosing charters, charters wouldn’t exist.”

He adds: “The nature of competition in education is that potentially everybody wins.”

The testy exchange was cut down from a 45- minute interview in DeVos’ Grand Rapids office, Toboni said.

Her producers initially tried to get a sit-down with Betsy DeVos but the education secretary does very few interviews — and many of the ones she’s done haven’t gone well.

“To his credit,” Toboni said, Dick DeVos agreed to the interview.

“It was a contentious 45 minutes and he hung in there and he made his point,” Toboni said. “A lot of people strongly dislike the DeVos family but however you feel about them and their politics and their lobbying, I appreciate that they gave us the time and that he sat down and did that interview .… He’s a really interesting guy. He knows how to defend his position.”

While the documentary only includes a few minutes of that interview, Toboni said she would try to see if VICE could post an extended version online.  

Dick DeVos, the son of Amway founder Richard DeVos, is a former state school board member and a leader in the state Republican party. He and has wife have been a powerful force in Michigan education, long advocating for charter schools, vouchers, and other alternatives to traditional public schools.

He is also the founder of a western Michigan charter school called the West Michigan Aviation Academy, where students can learn to fly airplanes. For the documentary, Toboni visits the academy and flies with a student pilot.

VICE’s “No Choice But To Choose” premieres tonight on HBO at 7:30 pm local time. See some of the DeVos interview here:

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit special education advocate tries to help parents

PHOTO: Tairia Bridges
Dorothea Nicholson is a education advocate for children with special needs and their parents

When Dorothea Nicholson first learned her oldest daughter had special needs, she recalls crying all the time.

Her daughter, now 17, was almost 5 years old then, and had so many health issues – including being unable to hear, walk, talk, or hold food down – doctors told Nicholson there was nothing they could do, and that she should place her daughter in center-based treatment. Nicholson remembers going to 15 doctors appointments in one week and feeling alone.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” the Detroiter said. “I was left in the dark, lost.”

Five years later, Nicholson gave birth to another daughter. She had attention deficit disorder with impulsivity, mood disorder, asthma and allergies to “almost everything.”

But by then, Nicholson said she had a better idea of what steps to take to advocate for her after attending support groups and getting other help.

Now, the educational advocate has taken up a mantle of helping other parents of children with special needs. She understands these parents deal with a variety of issues in their personal lives while trying to figure out what to do to support their children.

Nicholson recently shared the story of how she helps parents of children with special needs at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”