The PFPS Interview: Molly Sweeney, Owen Goslin, and Arlyssa Heard from Michigan’s 482 Forward

PFPS continues to showcase the work of public education advocates across the country in the latest installment of the PFPS interview series. These interviews offer advice and insights for others fighting private school voucher proposals. Given the large number of voucher bills already introduced in the 2023 legislative session, sharing knowledge and inspiration from successful state and local organizations opposing these policies is more crucial than ever.

This interview highlights the efforts of dedicated public school advocates in Betsy DeVos’s home state of Michigan, which remains voucher free despite powerful pro-privatization forces once again focusing their energies on establishing a voucher program in the Great Lakes State last year.

During the height of the 2022 effort to defeat these voucher proposals, Nicole Ciullo, Research & Policy Associate at Education Law Center, spoke with Molly Sweeney, Director of Organizing at 482Forward in Detroit, and Owen Goslin and Arlyssa Heard, Michigan public school parents and organizers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicole Ciullo: Molly, please tell us about 482Forward, its mission, why private school vouchers are an important issue for your organization, and how you got involved in organizing.

Molly Sweeney: 482Forward is a network of 10 community organizations across Detroit that came together in 2014 to organize parents, students and educators around education justice and to protect and build the quality of public schools in Detroit. We also started the Michigan Education Justice Coalition (MEJC), which is a statewide coalition of parents, students, educators, and labor unions across the state. We like to call ourselves the muscle that's fighting against Betsy DeVos. I’m from a family of community and union activists, and I got started in housing organizing during the recession in the city, and that translated into education organizing.

NC: Owen and Arlyssa, please tell us about yourselves, your experience with Michigan's public school system, and how and why you got involved in public education advocacy.

Owen Goslin: I am from Sheboygan, which is a small, rural town in northern Michigan. I grew up and went to school here, and my mother was a teacher in the Sheboygan school system. I moved away after I graduated and then came back in 2016 because my family was still here and I had a daughter. I started to look into the schools and noticed that things were worse than when I was a kid. Many of the schools had been consolidated, and some kids had to travel quite a way to get to school from out in the country. Resources had been slowly dwindling from the school that I went to and was now thinking to send my daughter to. That means fewer extracurricular activities, especially in the arts, and it’s hard to retain teachers. I also looked at other areas in northern Michigan where there were abundant resources. There are these pockets of wealth and poverty up here, and there is great inequality between school districts.

I got connected to MEJC through community organizing in our area on non-education issues. I got to know the larger ecosystem of activists in Michigan, and then meeting their connections and so on. One of the things that’s great is that it allows us to build rural and urban alliances, because we do have a lot of commonalities, although on the surface it may not seem that way.

Arlyssa Heard: I’m a parent from Detroit, and I have two sons. I got involved because of my children. I wasn't set on being an education advocate. I just wanted my kids to go to school, do well, get help if they needed it, go on to college or whatever else they wanted to do. I just wanted to show up to parent teacher meetings and volunteer, and maybe do a couple of bake sales. But both of my boys required additional support. My older son has sickle cell anemia. He did not have any learning challenges, but because of the nature of his illness, there were frequent absences. He's been hospitalized more than 100 times in his life. He's 27 years old. There was a different level of support that we needed. And my youngest son has ADHD, and I think the education system has not quite figured out how to educate children that have ADHD. That’s what put me in the game. I found myself advocating for my children. When I first started out, I was really angry with the principals of my children’s schools because I thought it was their fault that the school didn’t have “this” or couldn’t provide “that.” I even blamed the principal for the classrooms being overcrowded. It wasn’t until I became more involved and started connecting with other parents and education-focused organizations, that I discovered that the many chaotic challenges my son’s school and other schools were facing were because of an inequitable system that has kept our schools in a state of paralysis due to gross underfunding.

NC: Can you please tell us a bit more about the challenges faced by Michigan’s public schools and some of their strengths?

AH: Both of my sons have gone through public and private schools. Based on my experience with Detroit public schools, the strength is that they have to accept and serve children that qualify for special education or a 504 plan. We did not see that same kind of reception in the private school setting. In fact, it was quite different. I believe our public schools in Michigan have some of the best teachers. My youngest son had a resource teacher who was the absolute bomb, and I think we see that over and over again in a lot of our public school settings and systems. I just think they don't get enough recognition.

OG: I want to emphasize how critical the public schools are in small towns. It’s probably the same way in urban centers, too, but they are really the focal point of community. Our town used to be a manufacturing hub, but we saw factory employment decimated in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. We saw our hospital close in the 2010s, and the public schools are one of the few big anchor institutions here. That includes steady employment of teachers, who are very talented and dedicated, and they're an important base of income here as well. It’s really a huge gut blow to a small town when their school is taken away. That's one of the things that hit me when I came back here - just how much people love their community schools, their public schools, how important they are, and the role they play in the community.

MS: I think a challenge is that we have an incredibly underfunded system. We’re about $4 billion away from adequacy, and that was pre-pandemic. The other really large challenge in Michigan is that we have an incredibly strong and well-funded pro-privatization effort directed at our schools, led by a group called the Great Lakes Education Project, mostly funded by the DeVos family, that has been leading on pro-voucher efforts and on charter efforts across the state. This has led to more chaos and funding issues, especially in places like Detroit, and Black and Brown cities where most of the charters have popped up. We have very few economies of scale. For example, transportation systems which may have been working are more fractured because of the charter system and how it's structured. I would say those are the two biggest problems - funding and a very strong lobby to privatize our schools.

NC: Michigan does not currently operate a private school voucher program, but there has been a push for vouchers in the past. Can you provide us with the historical context, and why vouchers would be damaging in Michigan?

MS: In the early 2000s, Dick and Betsy DeVos and similarly aligned groups attempted a voucher ballot initiative that failed. Close to 70% of Michigan voters voted it down. Dick DeVos talked about the pathway forward after losing this big fight, and a big piece of what he said was that they were going to create grassroots efforts and groups to punish or reward politicians that stand with or against them. And that's when the Great Lakes Education Project – which sounds a lot like a grassroots group but is a lobbying group – was formed. They're not parents or students or educators. They endorse candidates, and that's how they've moved forward privatization efforts on the charter side. And now they are funding efforts to gain support from the Legislature on vouchers. My instinct is that they're trying to take this route now of going through our Legislature rather than having a vote of constituents across the state because they have more power over our elected officials.

AH: I think vouchers and privatization give parents a false sense of security. There is a lot of frustration with the school system, but I think vouchers give the wrong impression, that all of a sudden you can flock to whatever private school you want, and all of your educational and academic challenges will be over. And there is nothing further from the truth. People don't really understand the layers of this education system, how it works, how the legislators have a hand in it, what the State School Board does or does not do, how the culture and climate of the school impacts the surrounding neighborhoods, how disinvestment in schools has led to a lot of what we see. Private schools don't have to accept kids with special needs. They pick out who they want.

OG: Up here and in many rural areas, we don't really have many private schools, so it's always struck me as bizarre that we keep having this debate about vouchers when it doesn't really seem to connect to the lived experience of the people. We do have a local Christian school that’s really more for parents who are interested in a religious education, but the vast majority of people here are rooted in the public schools going across generations. It really goes back to this funding from Betsy DeVos, the Great Lakes Education Project, and similarly ideological groups with deep pockets.

NC: Is there currently support for vouchers in Michigan?

MS: A lot of our polling says there's not. I think that goes both to people seeing the damage done in places like Detroit from privatization and to our small communities across the state. I think there's some tricky language that’s being used to take advantage of people in this moment, but when you talk with folks in our bigger cities who have had “choice,” they’ve recognized that none of the choices have panned out.

NC: Several voucher bills, including proposals to create an education savings account program and to fund vouchers through tax credits, were introduced in the 2021 legislative session. Can you tell us about these bills and provide a recap of what occurred during the session?

MS: One bill sets up one-for-one tax breaks for corporations and individuals that donate money for scholarships. It’s capped at $500 million in the first year, and if we reach that, it goes up every year. That’s $1 billion in the next two years, which is a significant amount of money being taken away from both our general fund and school aid fund. The second bill sets up the scholarships. It's even trickier than we initially thought. If a scholarship is used for a private school, they get 90% of the per pupil allocation calculated for public school students, and if you're a low-income, special education, or foster student, you get the entire per pupil allocation. And if you stay in your public school, you can take a $1,000 scholarship for extra private services. When these bills went through, we did a bunch of research with the former treasurer of the state, and they are not even implementable. These bills were both passed by the Legislature and vetoed by the Governor, and then very quickly put on the ballot.

The pathway is interesting and creatively subverts public input on a very important law. These bills were introduced in the Legislature in August of 2021. Once the bills were vetoed, they very quickly formed this coalition or ballot committee called Let MI Kids Learn and really just took the exact language from those bills and turned them into a ballot initiative. They missed the first deadline for signatures. They have another opportunity to submit this week. If they do that, it'll go to the Legislature, and the Legislature has a period of time where they can choose to vote on it or not. If they don’t vote on it, it'll go to the voters on the 2024 ballot. And if they do take it up as a Legislature and they pass it, it becomes law. There is a lot of controversy because our constitution in Michigan is very clear and strong and says that public dollars cannot go to private schools. The intent of that was to protect our public schools, not to exclude other types of schools. There’s a chance that if they don't submit by the next election they have to start over again. But we're at a place right now where we are waiting to see if they're going to submit at all. [On January 9, 2023, organizers of the DeVos-backed voucher proposals withdrew their petitions, recognizing that the proposals would not pass Michigan’s Democrat-controlled Legislature following the November 2022 election. This is a win for Michigan’s public schools.]

NC: And who is funding that effort?

MS: The DeVoses are a big funder, and then a few big corporate partners of the DeVoses, which says to us these are probably the same corporate partners that will donate to the scholarships and get a one-for-one tax break if the bill gets passed.

NC: Can you tell us a bit more about Betsy DeVos, how she has shaped education policy in Michigan, and how you and other advocates have fought back against her influence in the past?

AH: I think one of the most up close and personal experiences we have had with Betsy DeVos is when she was originally being confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education. In 2017, we boarded a bus with a bunch of other folks, and we hit the road. We went to D.C. to block her confirmation. And there were a lot of great things that came out of that, although, of course, she became Secretary of Education. That platform opened up the eyes of a lot of people across this country as it related to privatization and who these billionaires were, and how folks who really did not have the experience, knowledge, education, and were not relatable, could just step into positions like this and make blanket decisions for families and students and schools all across this country. And we saw what a disaster that was. Now she’s back here in Michigan and ramped up again, but it's the same old playbook. Your billionaire buddies make decisions, and you make it seem like the decisions are for the good of the people and that you care, but on the back end we know that everybody is getting rich and reaping the benefits financially and getting all kinds of tax breaks, not to mention that you get to set up all kinds of lucrative contracts.

MS: In 2014, Detroit Public Schools were at the brink of bankruptcy, and at the time we had a state-run school district with an emergency manager. And half of our schools were run by charters, which are authorized by public institutions outside of the city and run by management companies from all over the place. We wanted to pass legislation to get our Detroit Public Schools board back, to get the state to pay the debt they racked up when we were under emergency management, to get rid of the state-run school district, and to have a local board in Detroit that would oversee the charters. At that point, the charters were opening and closing wherever they wanted, and it was deeply impacting the quality of our public schools. They were taking away students, and there wasn’t any regulation. So, we wrote this package of bills. We did it with a very bipartisan, community, union, business coalition, including very powerful Republicans, who had influence in Lansing. We had Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.

The power of Betsy DeVos was really shown to us when after this really broad-based coalition of very powerful folks in the state — very powerful corporations like GM; wealthy Michiganders; John Rakolta, who was a fundraiser for the Republican party — went to run the bills, and at 3 a.m. the Great Lakes Education Project made a $1.7 million donation to our legislators. And then we only saw some of our things go through in the bills. We had the Detroit school board back. We got out of bankruptcy. But there was zero charter regulation, and there was this addition of a draconian school closure law that only really impacted low-income Black and Brown places and said you didn’t have to be a certified teacher to teach in Detroit. She out-organized us by funding $1.7 million in 24 hours, and the bill turned out the way that it was. This was a push for us to build statewide power, and that's why we built our statewide coalition. Detroit organizing groups realized we need people in Sheboygan. We need people across the state that are going to start organizing because we have to combat this power that is even stronger than we thought.

OG: I'll just add that I live in the district that used to be represented by former House Speaker Lee Chatfield. One of the things that got me involved in advocacy is the story of how he was plucked out of obscurity. He was only in his mid-twenties when he was tapped to run. He was groomed by Betsy DeVos’s political operation and received advice and funding. Ironically, even though the school voucher issue does not resonate here, we kept getting these candidates who are plucked and groomed by Betsy DeVos to run and represent us, and then we were unfortunately seen as a base for these kinds of policies, which do not connect to ordinary people. And just a couple of days ago, I got a flyer from the next candidate running for our House seat. And I was surprised because it is highlighting the education choice issue, which I know doesn't connect here. When I looked at the back of the flyer, I could see that it was paid for by Great Lakes Education Project with regulated funds. That's exactly how they do it.

MS: I also want to add an important political piece. It’s not only that this effort to get people into office is funded by DeVos, but that this network is really deep and strong for people in big business; our big chambers of commerce; our largest, really right-wing think tank, the Mackinac Policy Center. These are all friends, and a lot of times, even if they don't move up in government, there's a very strong possibility they'll move into a lobbying position or a position of power within this larger network. People play nice, and their campaigns are funded, and they're guaranteed power in some other political institution in the state.

AH: This is what I feel is the messiness around all of this and the reason why I think there's so many people who are frustrated, not just with the education system, but also with the political system. The will of the people is just kind of overlooked or dismissed.

NC: Can you tell us a bit more about how public education advocates are fighting back against the voucher ballot initiative, and more about the MEJC and 482Forward’s role with the coalition?

MS: For MI Kids is a ballot committee that was formed of community partners, union partners, school associations, and others. It’s coordinating our efforts across the state, making sure we have a strong narrative, strong organizing, strong data to be able to combat what's really happening with this ballot initiative. We will be working hard to influence our legislators, which we've already started doing. We've had lobby days and met individually with legislators. The role of For MI Kids is to create a counter narrative and an honest narrative of what people in Michigan really want and why public schools are important to our communities.

AH: We knew statewide was the way we had to connect, but we also realized that there's some uniqueness in Detroit. We found that especially in Black and Brown communities, even though folks may not necessarily align with DeVos and don’t like her, they don’t think the idea of going somewhere else for an education is all that bad. They are frustrated with the system because of all the things that have happened historically, all the messiness, the buying off of politicians, the lack of funding. All these things have contributed to the frustrations of families who are in search of an education system that's the right fit. And so in Detroit, we started doing briefings with folks in communities of color because we had to talk a bit differently about what vouchers really mean. Coalition partners were having these talks and these briefings in their coffee shops and on Zoom and even in their community clubs. Talking with parents and families about what this means to the larger system of education, how public schools may not be what you want, but we can't hurt them further to help somebody else.

NC: Are there any other ways the coalition works to engage with and educate members of the public who may not be as familiar with the harms of voucher programs? Have you faced any challenges, and if so, how have you overcome them?

OG: We don’t see much of this campaign up north, but for us, it’s a matter of pulling back and unmasking the deceptive rhetoric to some degree. We have to warn people one-by-one that there is something bigger at play. Betsy DeVos is not very popular up here, so connecting a few dots to who is funding this effort is really important as well. I think you can talk to people and get them to understand that funding is the core of our problem and that our schools need more funding, not disinvestment. And again, I think it’s critical to do it in a nonpartisan way. If you can show that this ballot initiative is fraudulent in that it actually puts our community schools at risk, that’s a winning argument.

NC: Litigation is also being used as a strategy to open the door to vouchers in Michigan. In September 2021, Hile v. Michigan, a challenge to Michigan's constitutional ban on public funding of private schools, was filed in federal court. Can you tell us a bit more about the litigation? Who is supporting it and has there been any involvement by 482Forward to oppose the lawsuit?

MS: This is a voucher lawsuit arguing that our state constitution is exclusionary to religious schools. We know that the intent of our constitution is to protect our public schools, not to be exclusionary. We filed an amicus brief, and now we’re waiting to hear what's going to happen with the lawsuit. We are prepared to work with partners to stand up against it, similar to how we fought former Governor Snyder’s administration over some reimbursements to private schools that he tried to sneak into the budget a few years ago. [In September 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan dismissed the Hile v. Michigan lawsuit. It is now on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.]

NC: More broadly, what strategies or tactics have you found to be the most effective in your organizing efforts?

MS: To combat vouchers we have to build our own base. These are all connected fights: vouchers, school funding, anti-CRT, anti-LGBTQIA. What’s been most effective so far is to build coalitions across the state that have parents and students and educators and community members who are ready to fight and are educated around these issues. Specifically on vouchers, I would say having one-on-one conversations and having trusted partners and influencers across the state telling the truth. Having people like Owen, who is really well-respected in his community, be a messenger and an influencer in their community, as well as superintendents and teachers, who are trusted messengers and influencers, saying “this is not good for our kids in our schools” has been incredibly effective.

OG: It’s hard work, but there's nothing that beats the one-on-one or small group conversation on the sideline of a soccer game or wherever you are meeting with parents. I would also echo what Molly said about teachers. Teachers are still incredibly important messengers and are well-respected in my community. People really appreciate the work teachers have done during the pandemic, and they will listen. Teachers here are careful about getting into political issues, but when they do speak, perhaps for that reason, they come across as very effective.

AH: There are enough problems, enough chaos, and folks are tired of people lying to them. Everybody said it best: connecting with folks, building our base, and talking to parents and community wherever we can.

NC: Is there any advice that you would give to advocates, organizers or individual parents working in other states?

AH: Have patience and take time for yourself. Give yourself some grace. Everything is not going to change in a day. This is a slow roll. But just be patient and understand that it didn't start with you, and it's not going to end with you. Celebrate the small wins. You may not get everything you want, but if you got something, that's a reason to celebrate, to energize yourself a little bit more, and keep on going. And have patience with other people. Folks may not understand it the way we do. They may not read everything that you hand them. You may have to just give them a short message and catch them the next time. But that's okay. Just be patient, celebrate when you can, and take care of yourself because this work is exhausting.

MS: I would add that you have to build sustainable structures because this isn’t a one-time fight. We are in a long-term fight for our communities and for the public good. So, it’s about winning the small fights and going for the big ones. And realizing it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and you've got to build infrastructure that is able to sustain it.

OG: Look for ways to build connections between communities, especially urban and rural. I think long-term that's a great way to put pressure on legislators. And I urge people not to discount communities that you think are unfriendly territory. You will find allies where you might not expect them because when you come down to core issues, you can find people who can be persuaded. One of the things I’ve appreciated so much about this coalition is having the chance to speak with Arlyssa and Molly and learn so much.

NC: Arlyssa and Owen, is there any advice you have for public education supporters and parents who want to get involved in this work?

AH: Don’t wait. Do it. Stay connected. Get on the email list. Stay updated on what’s happening and get involved when you can. You don’t have to go to 12 meetings a month. But do whatever you can. This is not just for our kids who are in the system right now, but for the future of education. All the small wins, all the contributions we're making now are going to have impact later.

OG: I would add not to underestimate your own power, especially when you come together with other parents. You can start to share information and tactics, and you learn together. And sometimes, if you keep at it, you win.

For more advice from advocates working on the front lines to fight school privatization, read PFPS’s interviews with Robert Lominack, Executive Director of Richland County Public Education Partners (RCPEP), and Debbie Billings, a parent and public school advocate in South Carolina, and with Reverend Charles Foster Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children.

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