Time to Get Our Priorities Right: Schools Exist to Provide an Education for Kids: an interview with Dick DeVos

Published July 1, 2000

“The issue isn’t really about politics anymore, it’s about helping kids who are trapped in failing school districts. We’re on the ballot now, and it’s no use arguing about whether it’s a good time or a bad time. That argument was settled when we were certified with more than 400,000 qualified signatures. The question now is: ‘Are you for meaningful education reform or aren’t you?'”

The second of eight national educational goals established in 1989 stated, “By the year 2000, the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.” But over the past decade, the percentage of high school students receiving diplomas in fact has dropped, from 80.5 percent in 1989 to only 74.7 percent in 1998.

In the nation’s premier automobile manufacturing city of Detroit, Michigan, the graduation rate in 1996-97 was an abysmal 29.8 percent. Although district officials now claim much higher graduation rates, only one out of four applicants at the city’s Daimler-Chrysler car plants can pass a test requiring 10th-grade skills. Last year, the 180,000-student district could fill only two-thirds of the 600 full college scholarships awarded by the city’s business community to B-average students with good attendance records.

As president of Amway Corporation, one of the world’s largest direct selling corporations, Dick DeVos is a key figure in Michigan’s business community. As co-chairman of the Kids First! Yes! campaign, a broad coalition of religious, civic, and business leaders supporting a ballot initiative to create school vouchers, DeVos also is a key figure in the state’s education reform movement.

In addition to cochairing the ballot initiative, DeVos and his wife, Betsy, cochair a privately funded scholarship program called the Education Freedom Fund, which awards more than 4,000 school choice scholarships to underprivileged children in Michigan.

DeVos began working for Amway in 1974. Ten years later, he was heading the company’s international operations, where he more than tripled overseas sales. In 1989, he left Amway to form his own company, The Windquest Group, a multi-company management group. DeVos returned to Amway as president in 1993, and under his leadership the company has expanded further internationally and achieved record sales. DeVos recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you became involved in working to provide parents with a wider choice of schools for their children?

DeVos: I have a long-standing involvement with issues relating to young people, with a view that it is both morally, socially, and economically right to train children and prepare them so that they can be self-supporting, self-sustaining members of society. The cost–the human cost, the social cost, the economic cost–of not doing that is enormous. It’s also the right thing to do. That naturally led me to education issues and I was elected to the State Board of Education in 1990, where I served for two years.

In 1993, my wife Betsy and I took over the Vandenberg Foundation, a private scholarship program that was founded by Dick Posthumus, who now is the Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. In its first year, the Foundation had awarded three $1,000 scholarships. We renamed it the Education Freedom Fund and, with the help of many people and the continued support of Dick Posthumus, we expanded the program to 150 scholarships in the first year we had it. After raising the number of scholarships to about 500, we then partnered with the Children’s Scholarship Fund, raised some more money locally, and we now have nearly 4,000 low-income children with $1,000 scholarships.

The impressive part about that story is that 64,000 people were on our waiting list. We’ve always had a waiting list. There’s this insidious inference on the part of our opposition that some people who are economically disadvantaged don’t care abut their kids, and that’s an insult to these parents because many of them are very dedicated.

That brought me to the awareness of the issue and a desire to help people have choice.

Clowes: What about the Kids First! Yes! movement where you have teamed up with the Reverend Eddie Edwards?

DeVos: The Kids First! Yes! organization is separate from the Education Freedom Fund. The purpose of the Kids First! Yes! organization is to bring school choice to Michigan. It’s a ballot campaign committee that successfully filed over 450,000 signatures of Michigan parents and taxpayers to place this issue on our statewide November ballot. Ten years ago, very few people knew what education choice was, but the issue has matured to the point now in Michigan where we felt that it was time to go.

Now, we have the most onerous language in our state constitution which restricts any ability to use any kind of public money to support private education in any way, with the exception of some support for transportation. What we propose is to remove the block on indirect aid while leaving in place the block on direct aid. That provides us with a very defensible and winnable constitutional position that is truly about parental choice. It’s parental choice because the funding goes to the parents for the purpose of educating their children, which is, in fact, in the state’s interest.

My friend Eddie Edwards from Detroit is the co-chair of Kids First! Yes! and we have support from community leaders, religious leaders, and business leaders. If you look at our coalition list, you’ll see that it’s very diverse. We’ve got pastors of the Christian community, black and white; we’ve got the support of the Michigan Catholic Conference and Detroit’s Cardinal Adam Maida; we have the Jewish community in there; we have rabbis serving on our board; we have an imam from the Islamic community; we have the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. It’s very diverse religiously, racially, and economically.

Clowes: What exactly does the initiative do?

DeVos: It does three things. First, it provides for regular teacher testing in Michigan. To become a teacher in Michigan today, all that’s required is to take a test to achieve your teaching certificate. Once you’ve achieved your certificate, no further testing or verification of your capabilities or competence in your subject area is required. What the initiative says is that if you are going to teach a particular area of subject matter, then you need to be tested in some regular way to assure that you are competent to teach that subject matter. This testing would be across the state at any school that accepted public money, including voucher schools.

What we’ve observed in Michigan is that, because of seniority, teachers will switch from teaching one subject to teaching another when they want to stay at a particular school. They may be senior English teachers who were trained to teach English but they go and teach math even though they do not have the subject matter knowledge. We think it’s important for parents to have the assurance that the teachers in the classroom have knowledge of the subject matter they are teaching. We think the vast majority of teachers in Michigan will have no concern at all with testing because they’re highly qualified and capable. But there are a few who are not, and we need to make sure those few aren’t in the classroom.

Second, we propose raising the guaranteed per-student funding minimum within the constitution to current-day levels, which would be an increase of about $1,200 per student. It’s not going to give kids any more money this year, but what it does do is to guarantee that the legislature next year cannot reduce funding for any public school student in Michigan. That really puts education as a constitutional priority in the budget. We think that’s important.

The third component is the voucher idea. The idea is to provide access to vouchers within a limited number of under-performing school districts in Michigan–those that graduate less than two-thirds of their ninth-grade students. There are approximately 30 such districts in Michigan–out of more than 500 districts–and they enroll about 300,000 students. There are some relatively large urban school systems that are under-performing terribly, including schools in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon. Parents in these districts would have a voucher worth 50 percent of the per-student foundation grant.

By having that guarantee of the foundation grant, we also provide a minimum guarantee of what the voucher funding is going to be, since it will be 50 percent of the foundation grant. If the foundation grant goes up, the voucher will go up. Under our proposal, that would be about $3,100 per student. Since the average private school tuition in Michigan is between $3,000 and $3,500, it matches up very, very well.

In the meantime, every student that goes out of the public school system saves the state money. When a student goes out of a public school with a $3,100 voucher, half of the state’s guaranteed per-pupil funding of roughly $6,200 is not spent by the state. The state retains that $3,100.

Clowes: Is there any evidence that schools faced with the threat of vouchers are taking steps to improve–as has occurred in Florida?

DeVos: There’s no doubt about that. Until our initiative came along, districts didn’t care about graduation rates. Now, all of a sudden, they care. You see, when you get vouchers in your district, you can’t increase your graduation rate and get out of having them. Once you’re in, you’re in.

We also have a provision that would allow the people in a school district to opt-in to the voucher program, either by the vote of the people or by a vote of the local school board acting to embrace the voucher concept in their district even though their graduation rate is above the two-thirds level. Again, once you opt in, you can’t get back out. An opt-out provision is not available and the constitution would have to change for that to change.

If you’re in a school district that has no problems, with satisfied parents, there’s noting to change, nothing to fix. I’m all for parents being happy with the education their kids are getting. But what I see in Detroit is parents who aren’t happy and they don’t have the economic power or the political power to do anything about it, and that’s wrong.

Clowes: What about Governor Engler’s opposition to this initiative?

DeVos: The governor has voiced his concerns about this issue being on the ballot for a number of reasons. However, now that the signatures are collected, and the issue is on the ballot, the question is not “Is it a good time to have this issue on the ballot?” That question has been answered. The question that the governor must face–and everyone in Michigan must face–is, “Is this a measure that will effect meaningful reform for the worst school districts in the state?”

The old model is not functioning for those districts, and we are going to stand with the kids and the parents to give them access to a good education. This is an idea whose time has come.

The issue isn’t really about politics anymore, it’s about helping kids who are trapped in failing school districts. We’re on the ballot now, and it’s no use arguing about whether it’s a good time or a bad time. That argument was settled when we were certified with more than 400,000 qualified signatures. The question now is: “Are you for meaningful education reform or aren’t you?” Are you going to defend an indefensible status quo, or do you stand on the side of the parents and the children who have a right to expect a good education?

Clowes: Didn’t state lawmakers recently thwart the governor’s reform efforts and keep the cap on Michigan’s charter schools?

DeVos: Yes. It seems to demonstrate that the legislative process has great difficulty in dealing with this issue, in large measure because of the political influence of the Michigan Education Association. Some people think that schools exist to provide jobs for teachers. I happen to think that schools exist to provide an education for kids and it’s time we got our priorities right.

Clowes: No voucher initiative has met success to date. What makes this the breakthrough campaign?

DeVos: There are a number of factors that will make the difference.

Number one, Michigan has numerous examples of devastated school districts. Detroit already has been taken over by the state because it has failed. Benton Harbor is acknowledged to be a problem, and the state has hinted it may try to take over that district. We have in this state proof positive that our worst districts are not getting better and that we have a very serious problem that needs to be addressed by something other than a bureaucratic response.

Second, we have put together a diverse coalition of people from all across Michigan. This is a bipartisan coalition where we stand with Republicans and Democrats. One of our cochairs, Floyd Flake, is a black Democrat Congressman from New York. He stands alongside conservative Republican Bill Bennett. Our staff members are equally diverse and inclusive–for example, the Bradley for President coordinator is part of our staff mix. We are racially, ethnically, politically, economically, and geographically diverse. This is a genuine grassroots coalition.

Number three, we are going to be well-financed. Every effort in the past has been out-spent because of the union’s ability to allocate funds. This will be the first fair fight on this issue that we have had.

Number four, we have put together an exceptionally strong, professional campaign team to execute this program and to make it happen. Many of the previous voucher efforts were–with all due respect–very well-intentioned but unmatched, like showing up at a gunfight with a couple of little knives. We knew what kind of fight this was going to be when we entered, and we’re prepared for it.

Number five, this initiative is quite different from any other school choice ballot initiative. It embraces an overwhelmingly popular positive idea, teacher testing; it reinforces a commitment to public education; and it focuses a limited voucher effort on those districts where the need for reform is impossible to argue against.

Previous voucher efforts attempted to bring reform to places where people weren’t sure reform was required. We focus reform efforts on school districts where there’s no argument about the need for change. The only argument is about how to bring that change about. That’s what makes this campaign different.