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:

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.


Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”