Black money fuels Michigan school privatization drive

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Maurice T. Cunningham

Michigan faces two initiatives that would advance the privatization of public education. The campaign is funded by the DeVos family, one of the wealthiest families in the state, and several black money groups with unknown check writers. This is an attack on public schools and an attack on democracy.

I know. I exposed a similar pattern in Massachusetts.

The Let MI Kids Learn Voting Committee Collects 340,000 Signatures to Advance Two Measures, the Michigan Scholarship Program Initiative for Students and the Michigan Student Scholarship Tax Credit Contributions Initiative ‘studies.

Critics argue the measures are a thinly veiled voucher program, a step toward privatizing public education.

None of these initiatives is likely to be voted on by the people. If supporters get enough signatures, they can simply ask the Republican-led Legislature to pass both measures, which will then become law without going through Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Since Whitmer has previously vetoed similar measures, Republicans will circumvent a vital check and balance of democracy.

Some donors prefer anonymity

Campaign fundraising records show Let MI Kids Learn raised more than $1.7 million. Michigan residents who have followed the DeVos family’s decades of efforts to privatize public education will not be surprised to learn that the family has donated $400,000. The DeVos Connected Great Lakes Education Project Education Fund raised $25,000. The two main donors are from Washington, DC: the State Government Leadership Foundation gave $475,000 and Get Families Back to Work, which apparently shares offices with the Republican Governor’s Association, gave $875,000.

These last two are very big checks. Wouldn’t it be nice to know who the real check writers are? But as ordinary citizens, you are not allowed to do so. Both groups are Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) “welfare” organizations that do not need to disclose their donors. It is a great gift for the wealthy.

Three hundred thousand dollars have already been paid to a signature collection company to collect signatures. If ordinary citizens like you or me wanted to support a petition, we should volunteer to collect signatures. The rich buy them. It’s not democratic either.

Already seen

Here in my home state of Massachusetts, the governor wanted to increase the number of charter schools. The legislator did not do this. So a New York-based 501(c)(4) black money organization called Families for Great Schools (FES) went to people with a ballot initiative. The FES funneled more than $15 million in untraceable black money to its Massachusetts Big Schools Voting Committee. Voters were denied the right to know who the real powers behind the proposal were.

I started trying to piece together the identities of the real donors, and the evidence pointed to a handful of Boston hedge fund titans. Community groups and unions opposed to the initiative have used my research to build the case against the oligarchs’ attack on public schools. On election day, they routed the billionaires.

A big difference: in Massachusetts, the oligarchs had to submit their idea to the people. Democracy was their reward. In Michigan, the DeVos team can collect signatures and return to lawmakers, many of whom depend on donations from the DeVos family.

Legendary Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We have to make our choice. We can have democracy, or we can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.

If the Michiganders aspire to dominance of the wealthy, they can sign the DeVos campaign papers. But if they want to keep public schools public and defend democracy, they must reject the Let Mi Kids Learn petition.

Maurice T. Cunningham, JD Ph.D. is the author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization”.

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