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Opinion: Michigan v. DeVos is more than just a lawsuit

Paula Herbart

A lawsuit filed last week against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos created a case name that captures a long-standing feeling among educators and friends of public education.

Michigan v. DeVos.

After years of Betsy DeVos and her family pushing an extreme, anti-public education agenda across our state and nation, it’s a fitting phrase.

Her most recent angle — which prompted the lawsuit from our state and several others — funnels taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools instead of the public and low income schools for which they were intended to help students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the CARES Act, relief funds were set to be distributed based on the percentage of low-income students in private schools. Instead, DeVos’ distribution system would shift millions to all private schools. 

DeVos diverting funding away from at-risk students in economically disadvantaged districts into private schools during a pandemic is unconscionable, Herbart writes.

For DeVos to divert badly needed funding from at-risk students in economically disadvantaged districts into private schools during a pandemic is unconscionable. 

We appreciate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel leading the charge and filing this lawsuit to stop DeVos’ latest money grab.

Getting taxpayers to fund private schools has been DeVos’ passion for decades. In 2000, she spent millions on a ballot proposal that would have changed Michigan’s constitution to allow vouchers. Vouchers take scarce resources from neighborhood public schools, which 90% of our nation’s students attend. 

Voters rejected her campaign to publicly fund private schools by a 2-1 margin.

Earlier this year, DeVos proposed another shift of millions of dollars in federal aid to so-called “microgrants” — a backdoor attempt at school vouchers. That’s on top of steep cuts she proposed last year to federal education funding, despite increased need for funds to make buildings safer and update technology. The proposed cuts included federal support for after-school programs and — unbelievably — the Special Olympics.

While defending the Department of Education's 2020 annual proposed budget to members of Congress last year, DeVos tried to argue that “Students may be better served by being in larger class sizes,” despite overwhelming research to the contrary.

Unfortunately for college students, DeVos’ private school bias does not stop at the K-12 level. In a bipartisan rebuke, Congress recently voted to reject her “borrower defense” rule, which would have made it harder to eliminate the loan debt of students who were defrauded by private, for-profit colleges — to the tune of $11 billion in debt over the next decade.

In May, the National Student Legal Defense Fund filed suit against DeVos for continuing to collect on defaulted borrowers’ student loans during the pandemic through wage garnishments and tax refund offsets. The suit came one month after DeVos promised the Department of Education would halt such collections.

Recently, DeVos has been a strong advocate for President Donald Trump’s push to reopen schools, regardless of spikes in coronavirus cases and deaths, calling concerns of virus spread in schools “fear mongering.” Both Trump and DeVos know schools need additional funding that is languishing in the U.S. Senate to have the resources to reopen safely — but they are determined to see schools reopened with or without that support.

DeVos is the least qualified person to ever lead the Department of Education — with no experience working in, attending or sending her children to public school. As education secretary, she has continued to dismantle the promise of public education. 

Her continuing efforts to privatize public education through vouchers, her support for deep cuts in federal education funding, her efforts to roll back protections for vulnerable children and her ceaseless support for the for-profit college industry that has defrauded hundreds of thousands of students is simply reprehensible. 

Pushing these policies under the specter of a pandemic is shameless, even for her.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.