Dick DeVos. Change Maker

In the early 1990s, backers of a plan to build a new convention and multi-purpose sports complex north of downtown Grand Rapids sent up a trial balloon to gauge public and investor interest in the project. Concerned that the development would cause further harm to the city’s central business district, Dick DeVos shot it down. On the fast track to becoming CEO of Amway, the family business, DeVos was already recognized as one of the area’s most influential financiers.


In response to those who asked if he had a better idea, DeVos formed Grand Action, a group of business leaders who were the driving force behind the revitalization of the downtown area. It led to the construction of Van Andel Arena, the DeVos Place Convention Center, the DeVos Performance Hall, the Grand Rapids City Market and a Michigan State University’s medical school annex, all of which permanently changed the skyline of downtown Grand Rapids. Take that.


Later, Dick and his wife Betsy, formed the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. The foundation has donated over $100 million to causes that range from arts and culture to education and labor reform. Betsy DeVos has successfully advocated for expansion of charter schools while Dick earned his conservative bonafides spearheading a successful drive to abolish laws requiring union membership as a condition of employment.


Still, the DeVos’ haven’t always enjoyed smooth sailing. In 2000, the Michigan electorate said no to a constitutional amendment sponsored by DeVos that sought to make publicly funded vouchers available for students to attend private schools. Six years later, at great personal expense, he financed his own campaign to unseat incumbent governor Jennifer Granholm and was soundly defeated.


But the DeVoses didn’t throw in the towel. Increasingly, their pursuits have taken them beyond Michigan’s borders. Ms. DeVos recently became U.S. Secretary of Education, and Dick has been chosen to serve on the top civilian panel charged with oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration.


A pilot himself, DeVos is co-founder of the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school that prepares students for careers in the aviation industry. The school has graduated three classes, and the average SAT score for juniors taking the test in the spring of 2016 was 1072. The students in that class not only scored well above the statewide average but also ranked in the top 10 in the county.


Like all of Michigan’s charter and traditional public schools. The aviation school is tuition free. It is entitled to the roughly $7,500 per-student education allowance from the state, but that alone wouldn’t support its operation. The DeVoses have had to step in with a donation of more than $7 million, including a $3 million no-interest loan, to refurbish and equip the facility.


Doug Harris, education expert, economics professor at Tulane University and frequent critic of the Devoses, seemed dubious as to whether the experiment could be replicated. “The issue is … whether the educational themes and methods (they use) are expensive relative to more traditional approaches,” he said. Learn more: https://www.facebook.com/DickDeVosII