School choice 'David' took on establishment 'Goliath'
In a Dec.12 story, the New York Times stated that a campaign to ration charter schools in Detroit failed due to the financial muscle of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. secretary of education.
The rationing scheme was proposed as part of the bailout and reorganization of the Detroit school district. It would have created an entity called the Detroit Education Commission and given it the power to decide whether and where new public schools would be allowed in the city, including charter schools. After an extended and contentious debate, the Republican-controlled Michigan House of Representatives chose not to include the proposal in the final Detroit schools bailout package.
The Times article quoted a former Democratic legislator on the impact of the DeVos family’s political activities.
“‘The misinformation campaign was horrendous,’ said Thomas Stallworth III, a former state legislator who lobbied on behalf of the coalition. And the sway of her contributions was too much to overcome. ‘There’s no way we could compete with that. We don’t have those kinds of resources.’”
OpenSecrets.org reported that as of late October, members of the DeVos family had contributed $10 million to candidates and political committees during the 2016 election cycle. According to the site, $4.4 million of this went to national politics, including super PACs and presidential candidates.
But the claim that the anti-charter school forces in this contest had limited resources deserves scrutiny. There was a long-standing and deep-pocketed network of organizations aligned with the city's public school establishment that was influential and set the debate agenda until the final act. These included nonprofits, trade associations, public sector unions as well as the media.
The Skillman Foundation, for example, was influential. While it was not directly involved in the campaign, the organization supported many of the players working to have a Detroit Education Commission. It had a net worth of $401.5 million in 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, and spent $23.4 million. Its president, Tonya Allen, was paid $357,734 that year.
Allen was a co-chair of The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, the organization that spearheaded the campaign to limit charter schools.
Yet the Skillman Foundation received just a brief mention in the Times article, which described it as a nonprofit that “works with Detroit children.” Skillman does spend a lot on philanthropic work, including scholarships for low-income students, but it is also active in trying to shape public policy.
Skillman’s 2014 financial report shows several examples of its reach in this area.
It gave $250,000 to Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., think tank that spent $12.6 million in 2014. The organization opened a chapter in Michigan called Education Trust-Midwest and hired former Detroit News and Detroit Free Press staffer Amber Arellano to run it. The Education Trust-Midwest was a supporter of the charter-rationing campaign.
Skillman also gave $375,000 to Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition that spent $4.2 million in 2014 and was also active this year in the campaign.
A public radio station operated by the University of Michigan received $50,000 in 2014 from Skillman to produce education stories deemed critical for Detroit.
There were also more organizations attempting to restrict charter school expansion in Detroit.
Both of the state’s large teachers unions, the Michigan Education Association ($67.0 million in assets) and the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan ($3.4 million in assets) were active in the cause.
Also joining the debate were members of a cottage industry funded by the conventional public school establishment, such as the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, which had an $8.9 million budget in 2015.
In an email, Stallworth said the New York Times was accurate.
“The Coalition raised approximately $237,000 from a diverse group of 17 donors over the 2 years of its work to support efforts aimed at improving educational outcomes in Detroit,” Stallworth said. “The money was used to support the development of its recommendations, planning, community outreach and lobby services provided by GCSI. Speaking as an individual and not representing the Coalition or its members, it is my opinion that the NY Times provided a fair representation of events and that the legislature failed by ignoring the irrefutable need for a local accountability and siting system for all Detroit schools.”