Riding a Blue Wave, Democrats Are Poised to Win the Michigan Governor’s Race — and Deal a Blow to DeVos’s Education Legacy

Gretchen Whitmer (Getty Images), Bill Schuette (Billschuette.com)

Correction appended October 16

An idiosyncratic state in the middle of the most fiercely contested region in the country, Michigan has become something of a microcosm of American education politics in 2018.

With term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder dogged by bad press and worse polls, the candidates to succeed him are almost totemic representatives of their respective parties: Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, the progressive former minority leader of the state Senate, beat out several male primary opponents in a year when Democrats have nominated more liberal women than ever before. Her opponent, Attorney General Bill Schuette, took the favored conservative route to the Republican nomination by earning the endorsement of President Donald Trump.

Though it has backed Democrats at the presidential level for a generation, Michigan shocked pundits by narrowly siding with Trump in 2016. Now, disenchantment with the president is offering Whitmer a critical edge. Her party believes it could overcome long odds to flip both chambers of the state legislature, reversing the trifecta of red control over state governance that has prevailed for much of the past decade.

If they succeed, they’ll waste no time upending what has been one of America’s most ambitious experiments in school choice. Even some boosters of the state’s charter sector have suggested that it could benefit from more regulation, including constraints on the for-profit operators that make up the bulk of charter management organizations. Like other Democratic candidates in a year that has seen teacher revolts over education funding, Whitmer has pushed for an overhaul of the state’s formula for state aid to schools.

And lingering just out of sight is the one-woman political phenomenon of Betsy DeVos. Within Michigan, the education secretary’s name is essentially synonymous with the wide-ranging agenda of school choice that she and her family have spent years (and untold millions of dollars) promoting. Though dedicated activism has won her a national platform to influence American schools, she could soon face significant reversals in her home state. The coming elections pose an existential threat both to the Republican majorities she has helped build in Lansing and to the charter-friendly atmosphere the party has codified in law.

Across the country, observers of both national politics and education will converge on Michigan this November. And with just a few weeks until Election Day, signs are pointing toward change.

“I’ve been saying for some time now that it looks like the beginnings of a blue wave,” Bernie Porn, a longtime Michigan pollster, told The 74 in an interview. “Now there’s a pretty firm feeling that the blue wave is coming.”

The State of the Race

The most recent polling from the state suggests that Whitmer holds a sizable lead on Schuette, perhaps more than 10 percentage points. That sets Michigan’s gubernatorial race apart from similar Democratic pickup opportunities in heartland states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and Kansas, where campaigns appear likely to remain close through Election Day. National forecasters like the Cook Political Report classify the race as “Lean Democratic,” indicating a healthy, though not insurmountable, advantage for Whitmer.

In part, she benefits from a Republican establishment at war with itself. Snyder, the outgoing governor, has conspicuously refused to endorse Schuette, who defeated his preferred candidate, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, for the nomination. Even more bizarre, the GOP standard-bearer reportedly declined an offer from Calley to publicly endorse him at a joint rally. The two had sniped frequently during the primary, with Schuette excoriating his rival for his willingness to work with Democrats.

The Republican rift is by no means a new development. Snyder won election in 2010 by outmaneuvering more conservative opponents; four years later, he was re-elected after branding himself a “tough nerd” who could turn around the state’s flagging education system using lessons he’d learned as a business executive. He certainly trod a different path than Schuette, whose hardline views on LGBT issues have led some in the private sector to spurn his campaign.

Ultimately, the attorney general was buoyed by Trump’s endorsement. That was a coveted prize in the midst of a contested Republican primary, but among the wider electorate, the president’s approval has sagged noticeably since his surprise 2016 victory.

“Schuette was helped tremendously by the Trump endorsement in the primary,” Porn, the president of the polling firm EPIC-MRA, told The 74. “But just as helpful as it was in the primary, it’s the kiss of death in the general election. Independents and Democrats are very much against Schuette because of his close alliance with Trump.”

And Trump’s presence in the race may not even be as significant as that of his education secretary. In their own primary, Democratic candidates loudly proclaimed their distaste for DeVos. Whitmer, who fought some of DeVos’s favored education priorities as the Democrats’ leader in the state Senate, called her out in a campaign education white paper.

“[DeVos] is truly toxic in terms of how she is perceived publicly because she is believed to have just wanted to take money from public schools and put it into charters,” said Porn.

The State of the Schools

The controversy around DeVos is reflective of an energized public debate centered on Michigan’s public schools. As one of the primary actors in that debate, DeVos has won more fights than she’s lost, but a big night for Democrats on Nov. 6 would imperil much of what she has accomplished.

DeVos’s role as a statewide kingmaker dates back to her time as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party in the 1990s. With her husband Dick — who later ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Republican — she spent heavily to put school vouchers on the ballot in 2000. The measure was crushed, but the DeVos family was undeterred, instead opting to expand and unburden the state’s charter sector through any means at their disposal.

Those means were both plentiful and quite effective. DeVos has donated generously to charter-friendly politicians in the past few decades, helping to secure allies who would vote to lift a statewide cap on charters in 2011. When one Republican sided against the effort, he was targeted with a primary challenge that he barely survived.

More recently, the DeVos family moved powerfully against greater oversight of Detroit’s charter sector, working to strip language from a bill that would have established a special committee to approve new charters in the city. The DeVoses gave nearly $1.5 million over just seven weeks to Republican lawmakers who worked to kill any such commission, and the bill passed without the provision.

Within Michigan, and particularly Detroit, charter operators exist in the absence of regulations that are common elsewhere. Highly regarded sources like The Education Trust–Midwest have charged that the charter sector is marred by poor authorizer practices, inefficiency, and a lack of meaningful improvement over Michigan’s district public schools.

The question of school quality is a contentious one. Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that Michigan charter students achieve larger average gains in math and reading than those in traditional public schools.

But critics like Tulane University’s Douglas Harris have argued that such comparisons set too low a standard, and Detroit’s loose regulatory environment has contributed to academic performance that trails the national averages for both district and charter schools alike. Robin Lake, of the charter-friendly Center on Reinventing Public Education, said that she had “never seen a district and charter system as chaotic and dysfunctional as Detroit’s.”

Traditional district schools certainly aren’t paragons themselves. Research from University of Michigan professor Brian Jacob shows that Michigan’s students dramatically underperform on tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In both NAEP’s math and reading components, Michigan’s scoring growth ranked dead last between 2003 and 2015

Even DeVos herself, in an interview with 60 Minutes, conceded that Michigan schools have not improved in spite of her efforts.

John Austin, a fierce critic of DeVos’s influence who served as president of the elected Michigan Board of Education, blamed a combination of loose charter regulation and declining school spending for Michigan’s sorry state.

“I’m a pro-quality-charter-school person who wants to use them purposefully, as some states do, to create a new quality option where we need it,” he told The 74. “We had some of that going on early, but our charter movement in Michigan was basically hijacked by … forces who wanted to use unbridled school choice as a way to destroy the traditional public education establishment and its influence.”

Austin, who supports Whitmer, says that the state will make progress in education only by emulating high-performing states like Massachusetts, which governs its charter sector much more strictly and gives additional support — including extra money — to school districts where poverty is concentrated.

The Candidates

That proposal isn’t far from Whitmer’s stance. Following the recommendation of the School Finance Research Collaborative, a group of education experts who have called for sweeping changes to education finance in the state, she supports a switch to a weighted funding approach that would allocate more state aid to low-income students, English language learners, and other vulnerable subgroups. She has also said that she would scour the state’s tax code for breaks to unwind, hoping to send more cash to districts.

According to recent polling, 70 percent of Michigan residents believe that schools are underfunded, and 63 percent say that funding is distributed unfairly. Although the state isn’t particularly tightfisted when it comes to per-pupil spending, disbursing almost the exact amount of dollars per pupil as the national average, it instituted some of the steepest cuts in the nation after the Great Recession. State funding per student is still 9 percent lower than it was a decade ago, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A recent report from the Michigan League of Public Policy warned that over that period, hundreds of millions of dollars have been siphoned from the state’s School Aid Fund to prop up higher education spending and offset the cost of Gov. Snyder’s 2011 business tax cuts.

Whitmer has also said that she would block the expansion of Michigan’s for-profit charters. Unlike most states, Michigan’s charter sector is overwhelmingly populated by for-profit providers, whose missteps — and periodic abuses — have earned national criticism. While her Democratic primary opponents went further, pledging to convert all for-profit charters to nonprofits, Whitmer has promised only to prevent further for-profit growth.

Austin said the position was a tacit acknowledgment of reality: In a state where the vast majority of charter schools operate with a profit motive, a compulsory move to universal nonprofit status would be incredibly disruptive.

“It’s more important that we not allow any new poor-quality schools to open,” he said. “Certainly we should be more aggressive about closing schools, both traditional public and charters, that aren’t delivering the goods. But it’s not as clean a proposition as saying, ‘Let’s eliminate all for-profit schools.’ We’ve got hundreds of ’em.”

Bill Ballenger, a veteran political commentator in Michigan and former Republican state legislator, said he viewed Whitmer and Schuette as typical exponents of their parties’ favored education causes.

“Whitmer is standard, garden-variety Democrat on the subject of public education,” he told The 74. “She is for as much funding for K-12 schools as she can get, doesn’t like charter schools. And Schuette’s pretty much the opposite: He’s a standard, garden-variety Republican who basically likes school choice, charter schools, the whole shooting match.”

With the exception of his campaign’s emphasis on early reading — which some local outlets have interpreted as a veiled shot at Gov. Snyder’s unfulfilled vow to raise third-grade literacy rates — Schuette hasn’t staked many noteworthy education positions. He declined to answer a prominent campaign survey on K-12 issues, and most onlookers agree with Ballenger that he will not offer a change in course from the existing Republican consensus on school choice.

Indeed, Schuette has emerged as one of DeVos’s most stalwart defenders, even as her tenure as education secretary has generated unfavorable press in Michigan. One poll conducted this month found her favorable rating at just 20 percent across the state, with 60 percent of respondents disapproving of her service in government. Even 22 percent of the state’s committed Republicans disapprove of her performance.

“Betsy DeVos has always been a polarizing figure in Michigan, both before she was appointed secretary of education and certainly now,” Ballenger said. “She’s probably the most polarizing person in Michigan outside of Trump.” Her time in office, he added, had “kind of reinvigorated the opposition to her by the Democrats and the teachers unions. Betsy DeVos is not going to help Republican candidates at all. She’s probably going to be a detriment.”

Whether or not Schuette is suffering for a perceived association with DeVos and her policy preferences, his candidacy hasn’t won the universal support of his fellow partisans. A faction of GOP grandees have dubbed themselves “Republicans for Whitmer,” arguing that the Democrat is presenting more feasible solutions to the problems facing the state, including education. One of them, well-known attorney Richard McLellan, was probably the single most important policymaker at the birth of Michigan’s charter sector.

If Whitmer appears headed toward “favorite” status in the closing weeks of this campaign, the question is whether her Democratic allies can make sufficient gains in the legislature to maximize her influence. Michigan consistently leaned toward Democrats at the national level before Trump’s breakthrough in 2016, but the GOP has typically commanded strong majorities in both chambers of the legislature. In the state Senate, they’ve held a majority since 1984 — and, somewhat amazingly, for 142 of the past 163 years. That veto-proof advantage is currently as strong as it has been in decades: 27-11.

But the same tailwinds pushing Whitmer’s campaign forward will also help Democrats in down-ballot races. Nineteen Senate Republicans are facing term limits this year, meaning that several vulnerable GOP-held seats will be up for grabs. And if, as many suspect, the Senate is too heavy a lift, the blue team stands a much better chance in the state House of Representatives, where they need to capture only nine seats out of 110 to gain a majority.

If state Republicans are consigned to minorities — or even diminished majorities — in one or both chambers, they could be inclined to work with a potential Whitmer administration on reforms to charter oversight that many agree are sorely needed. The Republican-held Senate actually approved the 2016 plan to create a Detroit Education Commission, which would have exercised greater oversight over the city’s charters, before House Republicans eliminated the proposal after heavy lobbying from DeVos. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is reportedly trying to revive the idea.

Ballenger acknowledged the likelihood of divided government, noting that even if Whitmer is elected, “she’s not going to be able to accomplish much of anything in terms of education” without buy-in from Republicans. But according to Austin, that might not be so unlikely.

“I think that everyone knows we have to do something on education,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this story that ran on Oct. 14 referenced a study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) on Michigan’s charter sector but incorrectly implied that students in the state’s charter schools achieve at the same rate as those in traditional schools.

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