In a recent post, I questioned why the Chamber of Commerce would donate to a pro school privatization group called the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP). I first noticed the GLEP when I was researching contributions to my state Senator Darwin Booher, who I classify as an anti-public education legislator. Researching the GLEP took some work, but I was able to find out a lot of information on the group using a campaign finance search and by looking at archives of their website on the Wayback Machine.
The GLEP started in February of 2001 and they received their first donation of $25,000 from billionaire Dick DeVos that same month. The following month, Dick’s wife Betsy made her first contribution of $25,000. Over the next decade the two would donate at least $895,000 to the group (see my excel sheet). Both Dick & Betsy also served for a period as chairman of the board of advisers of the GLEP. Greg Brock managed the group’s day to day operations in those early years and the GLEP paid him about $67,000 a year to do so. According to the GLEP web page, Greg Brock was the ”former executive director for the Republicans and campaign manager for Kids First! Yes!.” Kids First! Yes! was the group that pushed the failed 2000 voucher initiative. Dick and Betsy were major funders of that group as well. Betsy DeVos and Greg Brock have now taken their partnership to privatize public schools nationally through the group American Federation for Children.
The GLEP website in those early months provided a lot of insight into what the group stands for. In 2001 Betsy criticized the legislature for “failing to lift the cap of 150 charter schools chartered by Michigan’s four-year universities.” In 2003 the web page noted that ”The number one priority for Great Lakes Education Project continues to be lifting the state’s cap on the number of charter public schools allowed under Michigan law.” The group had to wait out a two-term Democratic Governor, but it looks like Republican Governor Rick Snyder is ready to make their wishes come true. Snyder’s plan to allow for more charter schools will move us a step closer to making public school a for profit industry. Maybe we should not be surprised since Rick Snyder contributed $2,000 to the GLEP in April of 2006.
The GLEP has been especially critical of the Michigan Education Association (MEA). Their website said ”the MEA teachers union has held school boards hostage by forcing them to purchase the expensive MESSA insurance program.” Betsy Devos went further by saying that the MEA “currently controls our state legislature.” They listed as a goal of the GLEP ”to recruit, train and fund candidates for elected office in Michigan.” The first check they wrote to help a candidate get elected was to Bill Shutte who was running for the U.S. Senate. They only gave Shutte $40.00 in June of 2001. However, when Bill Shutte ran for Michigan’s Attorney General in 2010, the GLEP gave his election committee a check for $34,000. Shutte won the election.
The GLEP is not funded solely by Dick and Betsy DeVos. They managed to get a lot of their rich friends and relatives involved. In 2004, Dick’s parents Richard and Helen DeVos began contributing, and the two have given $275,000 to the group since then. Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen (mother of Blackwater/Zee Services LLC owner Eric Prince) has donated $75,000 to the group. Dick’s brother Douglas DeVos has chipped in $16,000, and his other brother Dan (President of Fox Adventures) has given $5,000. Dick’s sister Cheri and husband Bob Vanderweide (CEO of the Orlando Magic) ponied up $10,000. Many other wealthy Grand Rapids area business owners have contributed to the GLEP. A few names that you might know include Daniel Gordon, the CEO of Gordon Foods at the time, and Henrick Meijer the founder of the Meijer supermarket chain. Those two only gave $1,000 each though. The biggest name donors are none other than Jim and John Walton of Walmart riches. Each donated $100,000 in 2004.
The group seemed to be running full steam complete with employees, an office, phone lines, newspaper subscriptions, expense accounts, and much more up until sometime in 2007. At that point the website became very vague and their outgoing expenses have been limited mostly to checks to help elect candidates and to political consultants. They also funded misleading post card mailings and robo-calls in the 2010 election.
Who knows what the future of the GLEP project will be now that much of their work will be done by Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican controlled Senate and House of Representatives. It appears that they have become just another front organization to give rich donors another way to fund their candidates. It looks like they will leave the creation and dissemination of privatization policy to “think tank” groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the American Legislative Exchange Council. It is hard to believe that the donors to the GLEP are truly passionate about student success. If they were, wouldn’t they have gone into the education profession? Why wouldn’t they have given the millions of dollars they spent on politics to students so they can attend the type of private schools that our Governor’s kid goes to? I guess these types of unanswered questions make me skeptical about their real intentions. I believe what really irks these individuals is that there is a lot of money being spent on an industry (public schools) that they can’t make a profit on. They see not-for- profit as another way of saying for socialism. After all, if someone can’t get rich off it, then what is the point of having it?
Update: on 7/24/2012 Dick and Betsy DeVos donated $100,000 each to the GLEP which brings the total DeVos family contribution to over a million dollars.