How the DeVos Family Made Grand Rapids Woke
The right-wing media might hate critical race theory, but the DeVos Family Foundation dropped $350,000 to bring it to their hometown public school district.
Left to right: Equity executive Lashawn Chatmon; Calvinist billionaire Betsy DeVos; Anti-Trump oligarch William Oberndorf.
For the past few months, I’ve been reporting on the growth of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the education sector and their relationship to the charter school industry. I developed an interest in this subject while doing research for the very first story I published on Vulgar Marxism, documenting the connection between the charter industry and former New York City mayoral candidate Dianne Morales. Though many were surprised to learn of her enthusiasm for charter schools given the radical posture she adopted in her campaign, the truth is that the language of identity radicalism has become the lingua franca of the so-called “school reform” movement.
My first piece examined Morales’ participation in a fellowship for pro-charter professionals organized by the Pahara Institute, a nonprofit funded by some of the biggest names and deepest pockets in charter advocacy. Pahara traffics in the China White of the DEI discourse, so at first blush it might seem odd that they prioritize recruiting fellows who identify as “right-of-center politically.” But when you read their definition of equity in the context who their donors are, race reductionism starts to sound like a smart investment:
“While we are committed to eradicating all types of inequity, we center issues of race and racism as first order priorities...It has been posited that centering race is insufficient as a means to fighting inequity and that centering and prioritizing wealth, or economic equity would, in fact, be the greatest lever for positive change.
Given the disproportionate economic outcomes in America based on race, we adhere to a different theory and order of operations. We believe that eradicating racism is perhaps the most powerful thing we can do in service of economic equity.”
Nine years ago, the institute was spun off of a much larger grantmaker called NewSchools Venture Fund, which the ruling class uses to coordinate spending on pro-charter initiatives. A month after the mayoral election, I published a follow-up piece that dug into NSVF’s finances. Unsurprisingly, it enjoys the support of high-profile Republican donors and right-wing financiers, including: Bill Oberndorf, chair of the American Federation for Children, the pro-voucher lobby group led by Betsy DeVos until 2017; Charles Schwab, a top GOP donor who’s given tens of millions to far-right candidates and helped fund Donald Trump’s impeachment defense; John Overdeck, who dropped a quarter million to help Republicans keep the House in 2016; and Jesse Rogers, the leveraged buyout king who gave a quarter million to Mitt Romney in 2012.
More surprising is that all these Draculas are bankrolling some of the kookiest DEI initiatives in education. In addition to funding dozens of charter networks, NSVF also pumps millions into woke consultancies that proliferate DEI curricula in public schools. This inspired the third piece I published on this topic, about the amusing hypocrisies that crop up as a result of these arrangements. In August, Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts stirred controversy when he tried to strong-arm the state university system into discouraging the study of critical race theory while working closely with Bill Oberndorf to legalize school vouchers in Nebraska. Oberndorf bankrolled a slate of conservative, pro-voucher candidates for the state legislature, just like he bankrolls pro-CRT nonprofits in California that support charter schools.
Since I’m currently waiting on some sources to come through for my ongoing coverage of corruption in Nassau County, let’s use this week to take a look at another episode of right-wing support for critical race theory - one involving a much greater investment from the DeVos family’s political network.
In December 2020, a student and his mother filed a lawsuit against Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus, a high school in Las Vegas, Nevada. As part of a course called “Sociology of Change,” students were given assignments requiring them to describe their racial identity and whether or not it granted them a privileged social status. A biracial student, William Clark, found the assignments intrusive and refused to participate. Clark’s deceased father was white and he was raised by a black single mother. Clark himself is white-passing, described in the lawsuit as having “green eyes and blondish hair.”
His mother, appalled that her biracial child was being graded on whether he could appropriately grapple with intimate, loaded questions about his racial identity, asked that he be allowed to forgo the course or take another one in its place. The school refused and threatened to prevent Clark from graduating if he didn’t fall in line. When Democracy Prep followed through on that threat, Clark and his mother filed suit. In April, the school relented and let him graduate after a federal judge indicated that the suit was likely to succeed on the merits.
Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus is the Las Vegas branch of the Democracy Prep Charter School Network, which operates 24 charter schools in five states. This sort of DEI lunacy is a feature of all schools in the Democracy Prep network, which no doubt made it an attractive investment to NSVF. The fund provided start-up capital to open the network’s Washington, DC campus in 2014. The fund’s influence is also at work in Nevada’s traditional public schools. In April 2020, the Clark County School District contracted with an entity called the National Equity Project to provide a “culturally inclusive school analysis” and diversity training for 150 district personnel. Other Clark County public schools purchased similar services from the firm in 2019.
The National Equity Project is an anti-racism consultancy in Oakland, California that I’ve covered in my previous reporting. In 2018, it received a grant of $387,500 from NSVF as part of the fund’s effort to “close the racial leadership gap in education.” But NSVF isn’t their only benefactor. Back when it was originally founded in 1995, the firm was called the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), and its portfolio extended far beyond diversity training. In the early 2000s, BayCES received nearly $50 million from the Gates Foundation to administer the partial privatization of the Oakland Unified School District. The results were…less than equitable:
“BayCES recruited principals and gave them start-up grants, training, and coaching to start district and charter schools…Not all the new schools were uniformly good - in fact, seven of them eventually closed.
The high level of philanthropic support lent durability to the movement, but proved to be a double-edged sword. [According to] Matt Hill, a former OUSD program manager: ‘You have opinionated leaders behind the foundations who have their views on Oakland. But they don’t know Oakland and they’re not from Oakland, so there’s a lot of resentment.’ Louise Waters, former associate superintendent of student achievement in OUSD, also experienced this resentment: ‘The amount of unintentional condescension [from funders]…put off a lot of people who needed to implement reforms.’
Complicating matters, progress didn’t reach all communities equally. From 2005-2006 to 2011-2012, the gap in API scores between white students and Hispanic/Latino students closed by 18 points. However, the gap for African-American/black students actually increased by 9 points.
How did this happen?…The movement did not engage black families as deeply as it did Latinos. In fact, the first six schools that opened as a result of community engagement back in 2001 were all in [heavily Latino] East Oakland. This served to perpetuate other racial disparities, and in some cases, reforms may have concentrated low-performing teachers in schools serving predominantly black students.”
Eventually, the model the Gates Foundation relied upon in redesigning the district was recognized as a boondoggle. Nine years and $2 billion later, it shuttered the initiative after admitting that its efforts “did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way” in any of the jurisdictions where the model was implemented. In 2010, BayCES changed its name to the National Equity Project and pivoted to marketing itself exclusively as a diversity training firm.
The Democracy Prep episode became a sensation in right-wing media as a symbol of identitarian excess. It features prominently on the website for Parents Defending Education, a group formed in March 2021 to track “incidents” of critical race theory in public schools. One way they do this is their “Consultant Report Card,” which gauges the influence of various woke consultancies by hunting down copies of their contracts with public school districts. According to PDE, the National Equity Project has raked in the second-highest amount of consulting fees out of all the firms that they’ve identified so far. You can read through some of their contracts yourself on PDE’s website, and wouldn't you know it, more tendrils of the school reform movement appear under the very first rock you turn over.
In October 2012, a consulting firm applied for a grant from the DeVos family for the purpose of “transforming two (2) middle schools through implementation of district reform efforts” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The proposal requested $750,000 to cover their work on the academic side and $215,625 to pay their sub-contractor, the National Equity Project, for such services as: helping the schools “understand how systemic oppression impacts the behaviors, actions, development and experiences of educators and students,” “explore methods for strengthening rapport, trust and alliances across race and role (in response to the experience of oppression),” and strengthening their capacity “to lead bold conversations about race and bias.”
Evidently, there was some inflation in the equity markets that year, because by the time Grand Rapids actually inked the contracts, the National Equity Project’s fee had increased to $347,195. That means the grand total requested from the DeVos family for this three-year initiative came out to $1,097,195. While PDE doesn’t provide any paperwork definitively stating that the proposal was approved, public tax filings from the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation show that it paid out $1,094,102 to Grand Rapids Public Schools from 2013 to 2015. Maybe they finished up a day early.
Adding to the comedy of this whole affair is Betsy DeVos’ role in exacerbating the emerging rift between the charter industry and more conservative segments of the school reform movement. In her last year as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, DeVos proposed deep cuts to the amount of aid the federal government provides to charter schools, surprising observers on both the left and right who thought of her as an industry ally. But as the conservative education expert Frederick Hess pointed out, the proposal was not as puzzling as it seemed:
“Prominent charter leaders have been unhappy with the Trump administration’s stances on hot button social issues like immigration and they’ve said so…Republican officials say they’ve gotten the sense that charter school leaders have made a strategic decision to try and bolster support among Democrats by supporting the ‘woke’ agenda, even if Republicans find it off-putting.
While many casual observers regard ‘school choice’ as a single thing, there are significant tensions between charter school advocates and voucher proponents. Many voucher proponents emphasize religious liberty, while charter leaders tend to lean left on church-state relations and LGBT issues. Similarly, many charter leaders work hard to demonstrate that they’re supporters of' ‘public’ education by contrasting charters with school vouchers…When charter schoolers distance themselves from the voucher advocates who speak much more directly to the concerns of Republican evangelicals or market adherents, there are consequences.”
Yet here is the DeVos family dropping nearly $350,000 to bring diversity, equity and inclusion (I guess that’s about a hundred grand each) to their hometown public school district, courtesy of a woke consulting firm which itself is partly financed by the chairman of Betsy’s own pro-voucher pressure group! CRT for me, but not for thee.
Parents Defending Education is classic right-wing astroturf: appearing fully formed out of nowhere, like Athena - goddess of the culture war - from the skull of Zeus, ready to defend America’s children from the cultural Marxists at the schoolhouse gates. We don’t know who’s funding them, though some on the left have speculated that it may be part of some effort to leverage a moral panic over public schools to push for privatization. But the truth is just the opposite: it’s the privatizers pushing the woke agenda harder than anyone else. Whether this is a purely cynical maneuver to goose profits by exploiting white liberal guilt, a psy-op straight out of Langley to undermine class consciousness among the youth, or merely the latest neurotic indulgence of the professional managerial class (or all of the above), is anyone’s guess.
One thing we know for sure is that whoever PDE’s donors are, they have an eye for optics. Their staff is stacked with Virginia moms in pearls and cable-knit sweaters, no doubt a strategy to cultivate the Northam-Biden-Youngkin voters that proved crucial to Republicans’ statewide sweep two weeks ago. Several have their own connections to the charter industry. PDE President Nicole Neily penned an op-ed in June lambasting the Los Angeles teachers’ union for demanding a moratorium on new charter schools. Considering that California is the Chernobyl exclusion zone of DEI quakery, she should have been thanking them. In 2019, Distinguished Education Fellow Aimee Viana rallied with pro-charter figures for National School Choice Week when she was serving in Donald Trump’s Department of Education.
Do any of these broads realize that the school reform movement they’re all a part of - perhaps even the oligarchs signing their checks as we speak - are a leading force behind the very phenomenon they’re being paid to resist? Do they read their own website? It’s doubtful. But the right doesn’t have a monopoly on self-delusion.
In June 2019, Loudoun County, VA hired a firm called the Equity Collaborative to implement a series of DEI initiatives in its schools, which formed a core storyline in the gubernatorial election. The Equity Collaborative was founded by Jamie Almanzán, an education consultant based in Oakland, California. Prior to going into business for himself, Almanzán worked as a Senior Coach at none other than the National Equity Project from 2008 to 2012, just as the full scope of the injustice it had perpetrated against Oakland’s black students was coming into focus. One of the people he hired at his new firm, Jessica Gammell, was also a coach there from 2008 to 2013.
Do they realize that they spent years raking in six-figure consulting fees for a firm that had a ruinous influence on the lives of an entire city of black children? Or that their industry is, at best, a means for liberal professionals to expurgate their white guilt, and at worst, a cat’s paw for the billionaire class to bamboozle those liberals into selling off their public schools? Does Loudon County realize that the consultants it hired wouldn’t know racial equity if it punched them in the nose? Also doubtful. But that’s the culture war for you. No matter who wins, we lose.