It’s days like this when the DeVos family’s unseemly influence is on full display in Lansing. The Michigan Senate is expected to vote as early as today to eliminate pensions for newly hired public school teachers and replace them with 401(k)-style retirement accounts. This move, designed to undermine public education and cripple the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System pension fund, has been a priority of the DeVos family for quite some time.
Members of the DeVos family — including Donald Trump’s recently announced choice for United States Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos — have made no secret of their goal to reduce teachers’ benefits and phase out public school employees’ pensions. Earlier this fall, Amway President Doug DeVos (Betsy’s brother-in-law) announced that replacing public-employee pensions with 401(k)-style plans was “the No. 1 priority in Michigan policy.”
Several bills pending in the Michigan Legislature, HB 5218, SB 102, SB 1177, and SB 1178, would prohibit any public-school employee hired after July 1, 2017, from participating in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System pension plan, and would instead force those employees into a Tier II defined-contribution retirement account. The bills would also reduce the overall funding for the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System going forward, essentially guaranteeing that the existing pension fund will eventually run out of cash. It’s all part of the DeVos plan. Never mind the fact that an official from Michigan’s Office of Retirement Services testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee that the plan would actually cost the state “billions in transition costs” and “put additional pressure on classroom funding.”
What’s more, the amendments to the bills were not made publicly available until this morning. In addition, the ratifiers of the Michigan Constitution intended that the School Aid Fund would be used exclusively for three purposes, including “school employees’ retirement systems.” The present legislation would have the ultimate effect of eliminating the state-funded school employees’ retirement system and shifting the entire burden of retirement funding to local districts. So far, no one in the Legislature has explained how this is consistent with the objectives underlying Article 9, § 11 of the state constitution.
State Representative Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw Township) — a proponent of school vouchers who has previously stated that Detroit’s public schools are “bound for elimination” and that the people of Detroit have “squandered th[eir] opportunity” to have public schools — is the primary sponsor of HB 5218. Kelly has received significant campaign contributions from the DeVos family’s anti-public-school political action committee, the Great Lakes Education Project (“GLEP”). State Senator Phil Pavlov (R-Saint Clair), the primary sponsor of SBs 102, 1177, and 1178, is a well-known opponent of public school teachers. Pavlov has received substantial monetary support from GLEP and members of the DeVos family as well.
It’s not at all surprising that legislators like Kelly and Pavlov are supporting Betsy DeVos’s effort to end teacher pensions and further undercut the foundation of public education in Michigan. Indeed, as noted above, they have been outspoken in their opposition to traditional public education for years.
I was astonished, however, to learn that Betsy DeVos seems to have gained an unlikely new ally — Equality Michigan, the self-described “statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer political advocacy organization.”
In a recent Politico article, a representative of Equality Michigan seemed to support Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, indicating that she hoped DeVos “will protect LGBT kids.” This statement was apparently based, at least in part, on the fact that “Greg McNeilly, a political adviser to DeVos . . . is gay and was one of the first to marry his same-sex partner in Michigan.”
In Michigan, we are all painfully aware of Betsy DeVos’s work to defund traditional public education, expand the use of unaccountable for-profit charter schools, and divert government money to private schools through the use of tuition vouchers. But charter schools and vouchers make up only a part of the DeVos agenda.
Another part of the DeVos agenda appears to include the legalization of anti-LGBT discrimination. Last year, State Representative Andrea LaFontaine (R-Columbus Township) introduced HB 4188, legislation designed to permit child-placement agencies that receive state funds to discriminate against prospective adoptive parents on the basis of their sexual orientation. LaFontaine and nine other Republican cosponsors of HB 4188 received campaign contributions from GLEP and members of the DeVos family. Governor Rick Snyder signed the bill (now designated as Public Act 53 of 2015) on June 11, 2015, thereby officially sanctioning discrimination by state-funded child-placement agencies.
Several members of the DeVos family (though apparently not Betsy herself) have made significant contributions to the campaigns of Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette as well. As you will recall, Snyder and Schuette decided to continue spending tax dollars to defend Michigan’s ill-fated ban on same-sex marriage in DeBoer, even after Republican governors and attorneys general in several other states had dropped their own legal challenges to same-sex marriage.
How, exactly, will Betsy DeVos “protect LGBT kids” as Secretary of Education? And even more importantly, why would a progressive group like Equality Michigan speak out in support of a future Secretary of Education who happens to hate public schools? I’d sure like to know. I’d also like to know why Equality Michigan has decided to honor Greg McNeilly — an executive in the DeVos family’s company Windquest Group and a former campaign manager to Betsy DeVos’s husband — as a “Champion for Equality” at an upcoming event. Yes, McNeilly is gay; I completely understand that. But he’s also a vocal proponent of right-wing ideas that don’t generally mesh with progressive causes. For instance, McNeilly serves as chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization that advocates repealing the prevailing-wage law, breaking up unions, and eliminating teacher certification and endorsement requirements. McNeilly has also defended partisan gerrymandering by the Michigan Legislature — the very scheme that keeps Republicans in control even when they receive fewer votes than Democratic candidates statewide. And yes, I’m talking about the same GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature that has promoted anti-LGBT policies and expressed disdain for public education. McNeilly, like DeVos, has worked hard and spent money to keep these anti-LGBT, anti-public-education lawmakers in office.
Equality Michigan wants us to believe that, with McNeilly by her side, Betsy DeVos will be an inclusive and reasonable Secretary of Education. I just don’t get it. The naiveté would probably be humorous if it weren’t so thoroughly frightening.