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:

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

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 Michigan 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.