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.
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: