Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is poised to veto Republican legislation she and others say would crack open the door to school vouchers in Michigan. But a new group of school choice advocates is working to bypass her and enact a system that would give tax breaks for private school education.
Advocates on Monday launched Let MI Kids Learn, a group funding an initiative petition drive. With enough signatures, the controversial Opportunity Scholarship program can become law over Whitmer’s objections.
If the group collects 340,000 signatures — 8% of the voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election — and the GOP-controlled House and Senate approve the legislation, it automatically becomes law, evading a Whitmer veto on efforts similar to those previously rejected by state voters.
Let MI Kids Learn said it expects to collect the signatures by next summer, setting the stage for the Legislature to take up the bills again before the 2022 fall midterm elections.
The legislation would authorize tax credits for people who contribute to new Opportunity Scholarships that can be used for private school tuition or for services that supplement public education such as tutoring, books, band instruments, speech therapy, and transportation to extra-curricular activities.
Eligible private school students could receive up to $7,830 per year — 90% of the foundation allowance for public school students. Eligible public school students in special education programs could receive up to $1,100 and others could be eligible for up to $500.
Eligibility is limited to students whose family income falls below 200% of the eligibility limits for free and reduced-priced government lunch programs. That would make a family of four earning less than $98,000 eligible. Students in foster care or who receive special education services could receive the scholarships regardless of income.
Opponents say the tax credits will decrease state revenue by $50 million a year — money that would otherwise go to public schools. They also question whether the legislation violates the Michigan Constitution, which prohibits public funds including tax benefits from going to private or religious schools.
Fred Wszokek, a political operative representing Let MI Kids Learn, said the legislation was carefully written to avoid a constitutional prohibition. No money directly changes hands from public coffers to private schools. Rather, the tax benefit goes to scholarship contributors.
Democrats view tax credits for scholarships as vouchers that siphon money from public schools and send it to private and religious schools.
Wszokek declined to identify other members of his group or to say how it is being financed, although funders will be disclosed in quarterly campaign finance filings.
Voucher opponents immediately pointed fingers at Betsy DeVos, the former Trump education secretary, and her husband Dick DeVos. The wealthy power couple are longtime leaders of the school choice movement and have financed pro-voucher candidates across the country.
“Michigan voters have resoundingly opposed attempts by mega-donors like Betsy DeVos to enact voucher schemes in our state. We value neighborhood public schools and know that funneling money to private schools does nothing to provide equal opportunity for Michigan,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Herbart and other opponents called the petition drive a partisan game that mocks the state Constitution and ignores the will of voters who previously rejected vouchers.
“They’ve said no, and here comes another attempt to find another loophole, another pathway to do what Michigan voters have already said no to,” said House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski of Ann Arbor.
It’s no grassroots effort, she said. Rather, it’s part of a highly financed effort backed by some of the same people who funded Unlock Michigan, a successful ballot initiative that blocked the executive orders Whitmer issued in response to the pandemic.
“These are monied interests using paid signature collectors as a way for the party that does not hold the governor’s office to bypass this branch of government,” Lasinski said. “We have this path where people who have $10-$12 million can pay to get signatures and bypass the governor the people of Michigan chose.”
Let MI Kids Learn on Monday submitted its ballot initiative language to the Board of Canvassers for approval. If petition language is approved, petitioners have six months to collect the requisite number of approved signatures of voters. If enough valid signatures are collected the Republican-led Legislature has 40 days to vote on the legislation. If approved, it automatically becomes law without the governor’s signature. Approval is likely because the Legislature already approved similar bills that are now subject to likely Whitmer vetoes.
The process could take a year or more.
“Michigan’s constitution gives voters a recourse, and our petition drive will allow voters to expand opportunities for children, even if Whitmer won’t,” said state Republican Rep. Bryan Posthumus, of Cannon Township.
Wszokek said it isn’t just private school students who will benefit.
“Given everything everyone has been through (during the pandemic) we need to pull out all the stops to give parents the tools to get kids back on track,” he said.
“This isn’t just a fight over a cartoon character version of vouchers that the teachers’ union likes to yell about. This is about giving parents a bit of a toolbox to help kids overcome the learning loss last year.”