Big Donors Have Been Big Players In Fight Over Detroit Public Schools Turnaround

Some In Lansing Are Questioning Who Has And Doesn't Have The Legislature's Ears As Lawmakers Shape The Future Of Ed Policy In Detroit

Michigan Campaign Finance Network

LANSING — As Michigan’s largest school district faces a financial crisis, some of the state’s wealthiest campaign donors are entrenched in the fight over how to resolve it.

Through press releases, lobbyists, well-timed personal phone calls and perhaps even a slice of pizza, donors who’ve combined to give millions in campaign contributions over the last 10 years are working to influence the future of education in Detroit.

The role of donors and groups they fund has been so impactful in the ongoing Detroit Public Schools (DPS) debate that one lawmaker involved in the negotiations alleged this week that it was “the only factor” in a recent House vote. And some are even raising concerns about who's being given the chance to sway lawmakers on the matter. They note that the lead GOP senator on DPS and the mayor of Detroit requested but weren’t granted the opportunity to present to House Republicans in a closed-door caucus meeting. But the House GOP says that had to do with timing.

According to campaign finance disclosures, six of the stakeholders trying to sway the future of education in Detroit and their relatives have given roughly $10 million over the last decade to sitting state lawmakers, their caucuses and their political parties. The contributions have touched just about everyone in the Legislature.

The biggest donors have been members of the West Michigan-based DeVos family who are charter school proponents. Over the last 10 years, members of the family have given at least $6.1 million directly to the Michigan Republican Party, about $752,200 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and about $1.1 million to the House Republican Campaign Committee.

And now, groups the DeVos family supports are urging lawmakers to safeguard charter schools and school choice in whatever DPS solution is reached. It’s something House Republicans did when they voted on a package last week.

“It’s crystal clear that had the DeVoses not been opposed to this, it would have had a different future,” one source involved in the negotiations alleged.

House Republicans have downplayed the role of donors, noting that their caucus is firmly pro-school choice and votes that way. They also say that work on the bills is ongoing and there are more votes to take place.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network talked to more than a dozen sources who’ve worked on the DPS legislation in the last months with many of them declining to be named in this piece because work on the bills is ongoing.

In those conversations, sources have repeatedly pointed to the DPS legislation morphing into a philosophical battle over how charter schools should or should not be managed. And both sides of the DPS debate are enlisting major campaign contributors to help make their cases to lawmakers who will ultimately cast the votes.

Why Charter School Policy Is Involved

Detroit Public Schools, which has been under State control for years, is running out of money to pay its bills. Most state lawmakers have decided that sending the school district a financial lifeline is a better alternative than letting the district fail financially, which could come back on the state.

However, the questions of how to make sure such a financial collapse doesn’t happen again and how to improve education in the city are what’s driving disagreement. The core of that disagreement is over charter schools that have lured students away from DPS and over whether Detroit needs some control in managing the about 97 charter schools operating in the city or others that may open in the future. .  

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a group of stakeholders that attempted to develop a compromise proposal for improving the situation at DPS, believes that some type of control is needed. The coalition includes some charter school advocates, labor representatives, Republicans and Democrats. It also included some key players in Lansing politics — but definitely not all of them. .

One steering committee member is Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, an organization that’s given $205,000 over the last 10 years to groups connected to current lawmakers. A co-chair of the coalition is John Rakolta, chair of the construction firm Walbridge, who also served as one of Mitt Romney’s national finance chairs in 2008.

Another co-chair is Dave Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, a group with a PAC that’s given about $109,000 to current state lawmakers and their caucuses over the last decade.

The coalition’s proposal aimed to have the state assume DPS debt and to establish a Detroit Education Commission to serve as the “gatekeeper” for “opening, closing, and siting all new schools in Detroit.”

The coalition’s argument was that education in Detroit lacked stability with 119,658 students attending schools run by 14 different entities: districts and school authorizers. In addition, the coalition argued that some areas of the city were grossly over-served by schools with thousands of openings for more students and other areas were grossly under-served by schools with more students than openings.

Members of the Senate spent months working on their version of a Detroit school rescue. Spearheaded by Sen. Goeff Hansen (R-Hart), who worked across the aisle with Democrats, the Senate plan would provide $715 million to take on the DPS financial mess.

On the crucial charter school piece, the Senate plan would give the Detroit Education Commission some say in the opening of a new public school or the authorization of a new public school academy in the community district. The commission would be appointed by the mayor of Detroit. The Senate approved the plan in close votes with bipartisan support in March.

Opposition Heats Up

The package then moved to the State House, where charter school advocates were more prepared for a fight.

Charter school backers, like the Michigan Association of Public School Academies and the nonprofit Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), which is connected to the DeVos family, increased their pressure on lawmakers.

In addition to those groups, there’s also the National Heritage Academies (NHA), a Michigan-based charter school management organization that has seven partner schools in Detroit. NHA’s founder is J.C. Huizenga, who’s given about $731,000 over the last 10 years to current state lawmakers, their caucuses and their state parties.

Huizenga didn’t openly fight the Detroit Education Commission idea in the Senate but in the House, he's indicated opposition more strongly, according to multiple sources.

Asked about where NHA stands, Jennifer Hoff, spokesperson for NHA, said in an email, “We hope that any final solution provides good access for quality school choice for students.”

GLEP, whose board members include Betsy DeVos and former House Speaker Jase Bolger, has been outspoken about its desires. It has called for DPS to be dissolved. GLEP’s director, Gary Naeyaert, wrote in an email blast in March that the Senate-approved package would close charter schools, effectively ban new charter school authorizers and limit school choice.

Sources who back the Senate plan believe that the influence of GLEP and the DeVos family played a major role in what happened with the legislation in the House last week. Taking votes early in the morning on May 5, the House didn't include the Detroit Education Commission and other language seen as anti-school choice in its final package.

House Republicans said their members are pro-school choice and simply acted on that principle. Allegations that the vote had to do with the stances of donors were politically motivated, they said.

Fundraiser, Pizza and ‘Minions’

The House vote came on Thursday, May 5, after a lengthy 15-hour session that started the day before on Wednesday, May 4.

Sources said that the session night brought phone calls from key donors on both sides of the DPS debate to lawmakers, fierce lobbying outside the House chamber and allegations that wealthy campaign contributors were having un-due influence.

At one point, Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) posted a picture on Facebook of Naeyaert watching the legislative action from the House gallery. Yanez’s post said, “The masters watch their minions from the gallery making sure they follow their orders on #DPS bill$."

Asked about the post this week,Yanez said, “Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist or maybe I just see what’s placed in front of me.”

“When I step out in the hallway and I see the people from GLEP and the people from the charter schools … I know why they’re there,” he added. “I think it’s pretty clear.”

Naeyaert said GLEP has been involved in the DPS debate “because the key issues here fall well within our top priorities of choice, quality and accountability.”

“The Senate wanted Dem votes so they gave in to every demand, producing a bill that wasn't supported by a majority of GOP members that props up the new traditional district at the expense of charters and choice,” he said. “The House passed a plan that protects taxpayers, increases accountability and preserves school choice.”

Yanez also questioned the legislative process, noting that House Republicans didn’t negotiate with Democrats or lawmakers from Detroit in an effort to make the House package bipartisan.

Along those lines, multiple sources said that both Hansen, the champion of Senate legislation, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who supports the Senate package, weren’t given the opportunity to present their arguments to the House GOP in closed-door caucus meetings, where presentations on bills frequently take place.

Duggan asked to present to the caucus in April but was denied by House GOP leadership, sources said. Gideon D’Assandro, spokesperson for Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant), confirmed that this week.

“The Speaker didn’t feel that was an appropriate time to speak to the whole caucus, since the committee was still working on them,” D’Assandro said of the bills. “The mayor didn’t ask again after that. He requested a meeting with the speaker a few weeks ago, and they chatted personally on the issue.”

As for Hansen, D’Assandro said he asked to speak to the caucus at the last minute in the middle of the night on May 4.

“We were in the very last stages of securing the votes for the bill package and about to wrap up for the night,” D’Assandro said. “Bringing someone in to deliver a whole presentation at 10 or 11 p.m. at night making the case against our own members’ bills at that stage would have been bizarre, especially after months and months of negotiations where no presentation was offered.”

On top of those wrinkles in the story, there are others.

For one, the Capitol newsletter MIRS News reported last week that Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which advocates on behalf of charter schools, treated some lawmakers to pizza on the night of May 4 as the votes were being gathered for the pro-charter House package.

For another, a Lansing fundraiser was at least scheduled to take place for Rep. Daniela Garcia (R-Holland), the House Education Committee vice chair and the primary sponsor of two bills in the House DPS package, on the evening of May 4 — what turned out to be the night the House considered the bills.

Going into the day, the fundraiser was scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association in downtown Lansing. A sign for the event was posted inside the building, where the fundraiser was to take place on the evening of May 4. Garcia’s campaign didn’t respond to questions about the event.

Back To The Senate

The House-approved package now goes back to the Senate, where it’s up to 37 senators to decide what will happen next. They could try to shift the legislation back toward what the Senate passed earlier this year or they could move more closely to what the House passed.

A variety of sources watching the matter closely noted that senators don’t face an election this year so they face a different type of pressure than House members face. But the sources also realize that charter school advocates, like the DeVos family, have long-standing relationships with state senators.

There are relationships on the other side too. Supporters of the original Senate plan are working to build their coalition and to leverage their political influence more heavily. As a potential example of that, the key group Business Leaders for Michigan issued a statement on Monday in support of the original Senate package. And other interest groups are expected to become more vocal in the near future.

Still one backer of the Senate package admitted that when it comes to what happens next, “I feel like we’re the underdog.”

* Photo credits: Some photos in this piece were provided to MCFN. The photo of Betsy DeVos came from Wikipedia Commons.

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