David Hecker: We must fight back against the DeVos education agenda

April 13, 2022 8:08 am

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Michiganders have known for a long time that the DeVos family is a threat to public education. 

Over the years, Betsy DeVos has been extremely active in the conservative movement to undermine public education and funnel taxpayer dollars into non-public schools, including her track record as former President Trump’s secretary of Education advancing this reckless agenda. And now, she’s back at it again, funding a dangerous petition drive that would hurt K-12 students by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars away from public schools during a historic educator shortage.

This initiative, branded under the misleading name, “Let MI Kids Learn,” recycles the same old talking points about school choice to promote taxpayer funded voucher funds that will siphon money away from public schools. 

If they get the required number of signatures, this measure will likely not even be put to the ballot, because the Republican-controlled Legislature can vote to pass the measure into law themselves without allowing voters to weigh in. The governor has no veto power when it comes to petitions, effectively allowing a few hundred thousand signatures to overrule the more than two million voters who voted to elect Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

It is imperative that Michiganders decline to sign this petition and urge their state legislators to not support it should it reach their desk. 

For many of us, just knowing an education policy is being pushed by the DeVos family is a red flag, but let’s talk about why exactly this policy is so dangerous. As it stands, our public schools are already struggling with a need for mental health and wraparound services, outdated school infrastructure, and a shortage of educators and staff — and the pandemic has only made these problems worse.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

Fixing these problems should be our priority, for the sake of the 90% of Michigan kids who attend public schools. These kids, regardless of who they are or where they live, deserve new technologies, up-to-date textbooks, reasonable class sizes, educators who are prepared to meet their needs, and support for their mental health and general well-being. 

This is especially urgent because many Michigan schools are currently being supported by federal relief funds that will run out in 2024. Students across the state have already suffered learning loss due to the COVID pandemic, making this an especially terrible time for initiatives like this that threaten public school funding. And as with all attacks on public education, this voucher program will be especially hard on kids who are already vulnerable, including rural, urban and low-income students.

What makes this even more dangerous is that we know Betsy DeVos’s agenda for education doesn’t end with Let MI Kids Learn — she and her corporate allies have already tried numerous times to pass voucher programs to defund public schools, and they will not stop their efforts to divert public funds into private schools by any means necessary.

It’s critical that we focus on building strong public schools across the state, because public education is and always has been open to all, unlike private schools that have the ability to pick and choose their students. Public schools are also subject to more accountability and oversight, giving lawmakers the ability to address issues and promote students’ wellbeing through policy.

As a parent, I understand why some parents choose to send their children to private schools, and I support their right to choose what’s best for their family. But these nonpublic schools should not be supported by public money. The hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars this proposal would place into the hands of private schools are dollars that our public schools desperately need to support their students and educators.

At AFT Michigan, we believe in making sure every kid in every community has the opportunity to get a good education — and the only way we can make sure that happens is by fully and equitably funding public schools.

Because the Legislature can pass a petition like Let MI Kids Learn into law without approval from the governor or the voters, it’s critical that all Michiganders who care about public education decline to sign the petition. We’re also working alongside our allies to protect public schools and together have launched the For MI Kids, For Our Schools campaign to educate the public about this dangerous ballot initiative. 

I urge you to get involved, talk to your friends and family, and, most importantly, refuse to sign the Let MI Kids Learn petition. Kids across the state are counting on us.

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker has served as president of AFT Michigan since 2001. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.