In Detroit, Dick DeVos learns hard lessons, helps hometown avoid same fate

When most people hear the name Dick DeVos, they think of Republican politics. While it’s not an entirely unfair association, Republican politics has made up only the tiniest fraction of Dick DeVos’ life and work. Many of the things that he has accomplished far outstrip his close run at the governorship of Michigan in 2006. But these things tend to be lost in the public mind when compared with the massive coverage that his brief dabble into politics generated.

 

However, almost no one knows of Dick DeVos’ work as an education reformer. In an industry dominated by crackpot theories and the official sanctioning of so-called experts, who are often little more than credentialed shamans, someone like Dick DeVos never gets the recognition he deserves. Yet it was DeVos who personally pioneered the charter-school model that is now favored among crumbling inner-city school systems. DeVos, with his New School, was able to demonstrate that taking the most talented upper quartile of children from run-down and violence-plagued inner-city schools and sequestering them among like-minded and similarly gifted children could produce unheard of academic results. DeVos was able to show that even the worst ghettos in America could produce high-achieving minority students so long as strict segregation by ability and temperament was followed.

 

But his experiences in inner-city Detroit also shaped DeVos into a hardened realist. He no longer harbored any progressivist fantasies about all students being able to learn and achieve at equal levels. In fact, DeVos recognized that once a city passes a certain threshold of civic decay, even the best and the brightest will be pulled down into the undertow.

 

It was this unfortunate yet clear-eyed insight that led DeVos to personally take action to save his hometown. In the late 1980s, Grand Rapids, Michigan, was beginning to suffer the same unrest, productive-class flight and urban decay that had been seen in places like Detroit, Flint and Battle Creek two decades earlier. DeVos knew that the city would need to radically change course, or it would risk spiraling down the same drain that had swallowed up Detroit forever.

 

He formed an organization of the city’s top business leaders. He called his group the Grand Action Committee. Although similar organizations had been tried in other declining rust-belt towns, the Grand Action Committee was led by a man who fully intended to follow through on what the name of his organization implied. DeVos had always been a man of action, eschewing cheap talk and feel-good politics for the hard work of getting things done in the real world. And he was willing to put his own money where his mouth was.

 

Putting up tens of millions of dollars of his own money, DeVos personally funded the majority of the DeVos Place Convention Center, a sprawling convention complex that ranks second in total floorspace in the entire Midwest region. The center bears his name as a reminder of the considerable effort and risk that DeVos took in bringing the project to fruition. This and the Grand Action Committee’s other projects are widely credited with saving the city from oblivion.

 

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