Betsy DeVos backs Michigan petitions for voucher-like school choice program
LANSING — Two decades after leading a failed attempt to create a school voucher system in Michigan, former U.S. Dept of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is backing a new plan to create a voucher-like student scholarship program that critics contend will undermine public education.
DeVos on Wednesday helped launch the Let MI Kids Learn petition drive, which seeks to create state tax credits for individual or corporate donations to scholarship funds that would help qualifying Michigan families pay for private school tuition or other educational expenses, including home-school curriculum materials.
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“This is a chance for parents to take control of education in Michigan, in our state,” DeVos said during an online launch event with a handful of parents. “This is a chance to help students in every corner of Michigan access the very best educational options for them.”
More than 20 states have created similar tax credit scholarship programs since 2001, and they have emerged as a popular option in the school choice movement that DeVos led long before joining the Trump administration in 2017.
“I spent four years in Washington, but I have spent nearly 40 years fighting on behalf of kids,” DeVos said.
The west Michigan mega donor is also helping bankroll the signature gathering effort, which is the latest in a series of Republican petition drives designed to evade a veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and allow the GOP-led Legislature to enact conservative initiatives into law without her approval.
DeVos and other family members in December contributed a combined $400,000 to the Let MI Kids Learn committee, which is circulating two related petitions, according to a state disclosure filing. They also donated a combined $671,000 to Michigan House and Senate Republican campaign committees late last year.
Whitmer vetoed nearly identical scholarship tax credit legislation in November, citing projections the program could cost the state $500 million in 2022 alone, including up to $150 million that would otherwise flow to Michigan’s nearly $17 billion School Aid Fund for public education.
"Simply put, our schools cannot provide the high-quality education our kids deserve if we turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy," Whitmer said in her veto letter, going on to indirectly criticize the DeVos family’s decades-long push to reshape Michigan education.
There are more than 530 non-public schools in Michigan. Most are affiliated with churches or other religious institutions. As of the 2019-20 academic year, more than 102,693 Michigan students were enrolled in those private schools, compared to 1.5 million students in public schools.
The Michigan Constitution explicitly prohibits spending public funds on private schools, including any tax benefit or credit. But the Let Mi Kids Learn initiative proposes an indirect funding mechanism that supporters contend will survive potential legal challenges.
Instead of sending state funding directly to private schools, the proposed initiative would provide tax credits to donors who contribute to newly created “scholarship granting organizations” that could then pay for student tuition at parochial or other non-public schools.
If organizers collect 340,047 valid signatures within 180 days for their two related petitions, as required to advance any initiative, Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature could adopt both and enact them into law without a signature from Whitmer or a statewide vote of the people.
Michigan is one of two states that allow legislators to bypass the governor and adopt measures that collect enough signatures to make it to the ballot.
“The people of Michigan are not going to get a chance to vote on this,” said Casandra Ulbrich, president of the state Board of Education and spokesperson for Protecting the Promise of Public Education, an opposition group fighting the petition drive with support from teachers unions.
“This is going to be done in backdoor deals with big money people calling the shots,” Ulbrich told Bridge Michigan. “And you have to ask the question why? I don't think the answer is because they want to improve public education.”
She called the new plan “essentially a voucher system” that takes money “out of the tax structure … and divert(s) it to private education.”
Unions are lining up against the petition, mounting a "decline to sign" campaign. The Michigan Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers Michigan have each donated staff resources to the opposition committee, according to a recent state filing.
Michigan’s prohibition against public funding for private schools is considered among the strictest of its kind in the nation, but DeVos and other school choice advocates have been working to weaken or overturn the provision for decades.
In 2000, DeVos spearheaded a statewide ballot proposal to amend the state constitution and create a voucher system that would have allowed public funding to follow a student to a school of their choice, including religious or other private schools.
The voucher proposal was rejected by more than 69 percent of voters. Now, opponents argue the Let Mi Kids Learn petition is another attempt to do the same thing.
The proposed tax credits would allow individual and corporate donors to offset their own state tax bills by contributing to the scholarship organizations. That could cost Michigan more than $1 billion annually by year five, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency.
The impact on the School Aid Fund would depend on who donates to the scholarship funds. Nearly a quarter of Michigan’s personal income-tax collections are earmarked for public education. Public schools could also lose per-pupil funding if students leave for private schools.
Supporters say projected costs are a small price for a plan that will empower parents by giving them new means to choose the best way to educate their children. They contend that’s especially important given ongoing frustrations with the COVID-19 pandemic, including remote learning and masking policies.
“If the traditional public school system were working for every parent then these (scholarships) wouldn’t be necessary, but we’ve seen an overwhelming desire by parents to have more control in their kids’ education,” said Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, who sponsored similar tax credit legislation that Whitmer vetoed.
“I’m excited for the launch of this circulated initiative, and I’m excited to vote for it when it gets referred to the Legislature later this year,” Barrett told Bridge Michigan.
The proposal would limit the education scholarships to children in households that earn up to 200 percent of the threshold to qualify for free or reduced price school lunches, or children with disabilities.
Under current rules, a student from a family of four would qualify if their pre-tax household income was $98,050 or less.
Qualifying families could use the scholarships to cover any learning-related expense, including tuition, tutoring, online courses, curriculum materials, transportation and mental health services.
The scholarship proposal is part of an effort to “rethink education” in Michigan, sponsoring Sen. Lana Theis, a Brighton Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said last fall. “We need to partner with those who provide education to create an environment for success.”
Democrats, who voted against the scholarship program in the Legislature, contend DeVos and her allies are trying to harness pandemic-related frustration to achieve their own goals at the expense of traditional public schools.
“This is astroturfing,” Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Livonia Democrat and former teacher, told Bridge Michigan. “It has the appearance of a grassroots thing – a bunch of moms being angry – but really, these are intricately orchestrated and well-funded movements.”
“I’m just very concerned it’s gonna pass, to be honest with you,” Polehanki added.
Twenty-one other states already operate tax credit scholarship programs, but the Michigan initiative is expected to face legal challenges if adopted by the Legislature because of the state’s strictest-in-the-nation constitutional ban on public funding for private schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 reinstated a similar program in Montana after striking down a section of that state’s constitution that prohibited any public funding for churches or religious schools, calling it a form of religious discrimination that violated the federal constitution.
Michigan’s ban is also "motivated by religious animus" and should be struck down, attorneys for the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation argued in a federal lawsuit filed in September.
Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office wants a federal judge to toss the Michigan case, in part, because the state’s constitution "does not draw its distinction between religious and non-religious schools” like Montana’s, “but between public and non-public schools.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority in the Montana case, noted that states “need not subsidize private education.” But once a state decides to do so, “ it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” he wrote.
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