Opinion: Dark money fuels Michigan school privatization campaign

·3 min read
United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos answers some questions from the media as she tours Detroit Edison Public School Academy in Detroit Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.
United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos answers some questions from the media as she tours Detroit Edison Public School Academy in Detroit Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

Michigan is facing two initiatives that would advance the privatization of public education. The campaign is being funded by the DeVos family, one of the state’s richest families, and several dark money groups with unknown check writers. It’s an attack on public schools and an attack on democracy.

I know. I exposed a similar scheme in Massachusetts.

The Let MI Kids Learn ballot committee is collecting 340,000 signatures to advance two measures, the Michigan Student Opportunity Scholarship Program Initiative and the Michigan Tax Credit for Student Opportunity Scholarship Contributions Initiative.

Critics argue that the measures are a thinly veiled voucher program, a step toward the privatization of public education.

Neither initiative is likely to be voted upon by the people. If proponents get sufficient signatures, they can simply ask the Republican-led Legislature to pass both measures, which will then become law without going before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Since Whitmer has already vetoed similar measures, Republicans will bypass a vital check and balance of democracy.

Some donors prefer anonymity

Campaign finance records show that Let MI Kids Learn has raised over $1.7 million. Michiganders who have followed the DeVos family’s decades of effort to privatize public education will not be surprised to learn that the family has given $400,000. The DeVos connected Great Lakes Education Project Education Fund chipped in $25,000. The two top donors are from Washington, DC: the State Government Leadership Foundation gave $475,000 and Get Families Back to Work, which apparently shares office space with the Republican Governor’s Association, donated $875,000.

Those last two are pretty big checks. Wouldn’t it be good to know who the real check writers are? But as mere citizens, you’re not allowed. Both groups are Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organizations that don’t need to disclose their donors. It’s a terrific gift for rich people.

Three hundred thousand dollars has already been paid to a signature gathering corporation to collect signatures. If everyday citizens like you or I wanted to back a petition, we would have to volunteer to collect signatures. Rich people just buy them. That’s not democratic, either.

Deja vu

Here in my home state of Massachusetts, the governor wanted to increase the number of charter schools. The Legislature did not. So a 501(c)(4) New York-based dark money organization called Families for Excellent Schools (FES) went to the people with a ballot initiative. FES funneled over $15 million of untraceable dark money to its Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee. The voters were denied their right to know who the real powers behind the proposal were.

I began trying to piece together the identities of the true donors, and the evidence pointed to a handful of Boston hedge fund titans. The community groups and unions opposing the initiative used my research to build the case against the oligarchs’ attack on public schools. On Election Day, they routed the billionaires.

One big difference: in Massachusetts the oligarchs had to submit their idea to the people. Democracy was their comeuppance. In Michigan, the DeVos team can gather signatures and go back to the legislators, many of whom rely on donations from the DeVos family.

Legendary Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

If Michiganders crave rule by the wealthy, they can sign the DeVos campaign’s papers. But if they want to keep public schools public and uphold democracy, they need to reject the Let Mi Kids Learn petition.

Maurice T. Cunningham, J.D. Ph.D. is author of "Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization."

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion: Dark money fuels Michigan school privatization campaign

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