Dick and Betsy DeVos Supporting the School Vouchers in Michigan and across the United States

Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy DeVos have been at the forefront of a national movement to privatize public education by campaigning for laws across the country that would grant vouchers to parents wishing to send their children to private, and in many cases, religious, schools. Following the failure of the their Kids First! Yes! ballot initiative in Michigan in 2000, the two have been at the forefront of the national movement for vouchers.

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Republican candidate for governor Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy DeVos have spent the last several years organizing an aggressive campaign in support of school vouchers both here in Michigan and across the United States in a report released earlier this month titled Voucher Warrior: Dick DeVos by People for the American Way. The husband and wife team have spent millions of dollars building the national pro-voucher movement and funding private schools through their Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, including several thousand dollars to support private Christian schools in the West Michigan area. Dick and Betsy DeVos have used their money—tied to the Amway/Alticor and Prince family fortunes—and their political influence (both are major Republican Party donors) to build a movement that is funding the ongoing religious right struggle to implement voucher programs in states across the United States in the wake of a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a voucher program in Ohio.

In the wake of the 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Dick and Betsy DeVos started the group All Children Matter (ACM) in the spring of 2003 in order to coordinate a national movement in support of pro-voucher political candidates. ACM was formed as a 527 organization that exempts the organization from any restrictions on the amount of donations it receives and allowing it to run advocacy advertisements in elections. After Dick DeVos publicly identified Florida, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, and Virginia as “opportunity states” for the pro-voucher movement, ACM began intervening in state races. In 2003, the ACM contributed nearly $300,000 to state legislative races in Virginia and in 2004; the group supported the movement in South Carolina, Utah, and Florida. In Florida, the ACM spent $500,000 to elect pro-voucher candidates but never used the word “voucher” in its advertisements. ACM has a presence in Florida, Texas, Missouri, and Indiana as well as Virginia and Colorado where it is the most influential. This diffuse network has allowed the movement to shift money between states and obscure the names of donors with money given to ACM showing up in state races but only identified as coming from ACM. The group has also funded last minute issue ads to attempt to influence the outcome of elections in Missouri. The formation of ACM joins with the DeVoses work co-chairing the Education Freedom Fund a group that gives scholarships to low-income students to help them attend private schools, the Great Lakes Education Project PAC that funds Michigan candidates committed to the privatization of the public schools, and the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a national group of which Dick DeVos is on the board.

The national effort—successful in funneling money to pro-voucher candidates—has not been matched by similar successes in Michigan. In 2000 the Kids First! Yes! ballot initiative to use state money to fund vouchers for private and religious schools, co-chaired by Dick and Betsy DeVos, was soundly defeated by 69% of voters. The program as outlined on the ballot would have given money not only to low income students but to any student that wanted one, regardless of their wealth, and thus students already attending private schools would have had their tuition subsidized by the state. The families of Dick and Betsy DeVos contributed much of the money to get the initiative on the ballot, with Dick DeVos contributing $50,000, Richard and Helen DeVos contributing $150,000, Betsy DeVos’ mother Elsa Prince contributing $200,000, and two companies and a PAC chaired by DeVos (Windquest Group, RDV Properties, and Restoring the American Dream) providing around $50,000 in additional support for the campaign. Once the initiative was on the ballot, their families supplied millions of dollars to the campaign, with Richard DeVos and Elsa Prince each giving a million dollars. The failed campaign also is another example of the Dick DeVos’ ties to the religious right, with the campaign’s groundwork being laid by religious and economic right groups including the Michigan Family Forum, TEACH Michigan Education Fund, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy according to a February 2000 article in the Metro Times.

While Dick DeVos has certainly supported the movement and as recently as last year said that he supports vouchers despite his unwillingness to push for them in Michigan due to the rejection of the 2000 DeVos ballot initiative (source), much of organizing has been through the efforts of Betsy DeVos who resigned as a leader in the state Republican Party in 2000 after a dispute with Governor Engler over the ballot initiative (Kids First! Yes!) that she and other prominent rightwing funders were pushing to establish state-funded voucher programs. After leaving the Republican Party maintained leadership posts in two pro-voucher organizations, Choices for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project Political Action Committee. Choices for Children was formed by DeVos in February of 2001 as a “a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog and education reform think-tank project that represents a broad and growing coalition of education reform leaders” (source). She has also served on the board of the American Education Reform Council (AERC) and is now on the board of Advocates for School Choice, a group formed through a merger of the of the pro-voucher organizations American Education Reform Council, the American Education Reform Foundation, and Children First America. She was also co-chair of the Of The People Foundation, a group working to introduce state constitutional amendments that would give parents legal standing for censoring public school curriculum, weakening the capacity of social service agencies to act in support of children, and allowing for vouchers for religious schools.

To learn more about the “philanthropy” of Dick DeVos, pursue the grant history of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org