The confirmation hearings for Billionaire Betsy are scheduled to begin on January 11. It is assumed that she will breeze through because the DeVos family gives so much money to Republican politicians. That is usually enough to get a wealthy donor given an ambassadorship, but it is not typically the case for cabinet positions. Members of the president’s cabinet are expected to have some experience in the department and sector where they will take charge of federal policy. Billionaire Betsy has none. Her only involvement in education is as a lobbyist for private school choice. Since some 85% of children in the U.S. attend public schools, this means that she is totally out of touch with public education, for which she has repeatedly demonstrated hostility and contempt.


If she had her druthers, every child in America would attend a religious school, preferably evangelical Christian, to further her religious goals.


She and her husband tried and failed in 2000 to change the state constitution in Michigan, which forbids spending public money on religious schools. Voters turned down the revision overwhelmingly, by 69-31%.


So Billionaire Betsy and her husband went all in for charter schools, the next best route to privatization. They stood firmly against any regulation of charter schools, and the result–according to a year-long investigation by the Detroit Free Press in 2014–is a sector that is dominated by for-profit charters, that has low quality and poor performance, and that wastes $1 billion of taxpayers’ dollars every year. (I will explain in the next post why I am not including a link to the DFP series about the incompetence and corruption of the state’s charter sector.)


Here is one of dozens of stories of charter school corruption.


A husband and wife team (the Cancilliaris) started multiple charter schools; she was a teacher, he was a contractor. They were charged with self-dealing and conflicts of interest for steering millions of dollars to their private, for-profit companies. But the law is so weak on conflict of interest that almost anything goes. He was paid $200,000 as facilities director; she was paid $250,000 as program director, while also running an off-site textbook company that she and her husband founded.



In 2008 and again in 2012, Central Michigan raised questions about insider dealings, mostly involving the Cancilliaris; Mike Witucki, the former Flat Rock schools superintendent whose company, Helicon Associates, was brought in to manage the Summit schools; and the schools’ lawyers. At issue:


■ Companies founded by Witucki and Dino Cancilliari received millions of dollars in school funds for janitorial and tutoring services.


■ Emma Street Holdings, another company founded by the two men, provided loans and sold real estate to the schools.


■ Lawyers for the schools’ boards incorporated several of the Dino Cancilliari and Witucki companies, but CMU said they failed to disclose those relationships to the boards.


■ A company owned by Dino Cancilliari and his brother got construction contracts worth millions of dollars.


■ Helicon Associates paid Alison Cancilliari for consulting work, even as the two schools, with her at the helm, paid Helicon fees for managing the schools.


An expert on ethics says she sees ‘conflicts of interest at every turn


John Austin, president of the Michigan Board of Education, which makes education policy and advises lawmakers, said “self-dealing and personal enrichment of one’s self and family members in operating a public school would not stand the light of day at a local school board meeting.”


Diane Swanson, a professor of management at Kansas State University who specializes in ethics, said she sees “conflicts of interest at every turn.”


Swanson said dealings like those at Summit “make it look like the chartered schools are set up to funnel money into private hands. … I have serious concerns whether the primary stakeholders are really being served: the children, parents and the state itself.”


Two years ago, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers rated charter laws and said that Michigan has one of the worst charter school laws in the nation. 


Of particular note, the report said Michigan’s standards for renewing a charter are too low, the law doesn’t provide for automatic closure if a school is academically failing and doesn’t include minimum quality standards for authorizers. It also said the law doesn’t require authorizers to produce an annual report on the academic performance of its schools.


In brief, a public school with low test scores may be closed and turned over to a charter operator. A charter schools with low test scores will never be closed.


That’s Billionaire Betsy’s idea of the way education should run. Anyone who steps up is eligible to get a charter. For-profit companies run 80% of the schools. With no accountability, no transparency, no oversight, no conflict of interest laws.


Call your Senator. Call his or her office in Washington. Call her/his office in your state and/or district. Say NO to DeVos.