Want to See How School Choice Leads to Segregation? Visit Betsy DeVos’ Hometown


To see for yourself how school choice leads to segregation, I recommend a visit to Betsy DeVos’ hometown of Holland, Michigan.

Here, two decades of the policies that the Trump/DeVos education budget now wants to take national, have resulted in white flight and school closures, leaving Holland’s poor and minority students segregated in the few schools that remain open. I traveled to Holland last week for the annual Tulip Time festival, a celebration of the city’s Dutch heritage. But along with Dutch shoes and swagger, the legacy of Michigan’s now two-decade experiment with school choice was on vivid display as well, and it wasn’t pretty.

First, some background. During the endless runup to DeVos’ confirmation hearing last year, it was the Wild West-style school choice she’d pushed in Detroit that garnered most of the attention. But DeVos was also behind Michigan’s inter-district choice policies that, starting in 2000, disrupted neighborhood attendance zones, just as the Trump administration’s proposed budget seeks to do. In Michigan, school choice has become the new white flight as white families have fled their resident districts for schools that are less diverse. The most dramatic example of this may be in DeVos’ own hometown of Holland.

The choice to segregate

Since Michigan adopted the school choice policies DeVos is now pushing across the country, Holland’s white enrollment has dropped by more than 60%, as students decamped for public schools or charters in whiter communities nearby. The students who remain in the Holland Public Schools are now majority Hispanic and overwhelmingly poor—twice the schools’ poverty rate when Michigan’s school choice experiment began. Many of these students are the children of migrant farm workers who came to this part of the state to pick fruit; school choice enabled Holland’s white families to choose not to attend school with them. One in three students in Holland no longer attends school there, and since the money follows the child in the Mitten State, yet another DeVos priority, white flight has eaten the district’s finances, too.

In 2000, Holland had 15 schools. Now it has just eight. Of nine Holland schools that once served elementary students, just two are left. By 2009, even the elementary school where DeVos’ mother once taught had been shuttered. As students flee for schools in communities like Zeeland, the future of Holland’s public schools looks increasingly dire. Already there are mutterings in this wealthy, Dutch-dominated community that the school population doesn’t represent Holland. And as DeVos well understands, a community that has little stake in its schools is unlikely to shell out money to pay for them.

The People’s Parade (to whiter school districts)

Last week, at the very moment graduates of Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University were turning their backs on Betsy DeVos, I was within shouting distance of her mother. This is not as weird as it sounds. I’m writing a book about how the Midwest turned red, and why the war on public schools in states like Michigan is key to understanding that story. When a former GOP state rep invited me to be his plus-one at the annual Tulip Time luncheon at Hope College’s DeVos Field House, I was unable to resist. The luncheon, which had featured Gov. Rick Snyder not talking about Flint to a crowd of local elites, was over and the day’s big event, the first Tulip Time parade, was about to kick off. Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, the patroness of causes Christian and conservative and mother to Betsy and Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince, was to be the parade’s grand marshal.

As it happened, this particular procession was known as the Volksparade, or People’s Parade. Snyder, decked out in full Dutch regalia down to wooden shoes and a bucket and broom, was at the front of the line. But the real star of the show were the school bands. As they made their way through the streets of downtown Holland, showing off their skills and drills, the segregating power of school choice was on vivid display as well. The Holland Public Schools Marching Band was the only group to navigate the parade route in Dutch wooden shoes. They were also the only minority student body in the entire parade.

Then there were all of the schools in neighboring communities which students in Holland now attend. Here came Black River Public School, a charter that is only a mile from Holland but serves a student body that is 75% white. Four hundred students from Holland attend Black River. Zeeland was in the house too. More than 250 students who live in Holland now make the five-mile trek east to this small community with schools that are 80% white. And here came Hamilton High School, 90% white, and now home to more than 150 students who live in Holland. You get the point.

Sorting out

Betsy DeVos’ own alma mater, Holland Christian High School, closed out the Volksparade. These are the children of local Dutch elites, their heritage reflected in ranks that were not only entirely white but exclusively blonde. In Holland, Christian refers to the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist offshoot organized around the tenet of predestination, meaning that God has already determined the salvation of individuals. Members of the Holland Christian High School Marching Band marched with the certain swagger that comes with knowing exactly where one is headed: college and heaven.

The Trump/DeVos education budget was made public on the 63rd anniversary of Brown vs. Board. DeVos’ vision isn’t just a retreat from Brown. It embodies the spirit that animated its opponents to set up segregation academies in Brown’s wake. The budget that bears her imprint would encourage and even incentivize white flight. We don’t have to speculate about where all this leads. The outcome of the kind of school choice policies that DeVos has pushed for decades in her home state and now wants every state to embrace has been starkly measurable segregation. And even that is an understatement. What I witnessed in DeVos’ hometown last week was extreme sorting on the basis of race and class. That the top education official in the country thinks this is a good thing is appalling.

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