Don’t sign. That’s the message from a coalition of Michigan education advocacy groups formed to stop a petition drive they say could eliminate $500 million in state revenue every year, including $40 million from school coffers
Betsy DeVos, former United States secretary of education, is backing the petition drive aiming to create a system that would use tax breaks to cover tuition for families that choose to send their children to private schools. Similar plans have been rejected twice since 2000, once by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, once by Michigan voters. Now critics allege that DeVos intends to use a loophole in the state constitution to put the issue directly to the GOP-led state legislature.
At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding, including what critics say is an estimated $40 million per year for schools, at a time when schools are grappling with labor market instability and the impacts of the pandemic on student academic and emotional well-being. That figure comes from a nonpartisan analysis of a similar proposal that Whitmer vetoed last year.
“This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Andrew Brodie, superintendent of Flat Rock Community Schools and board president of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.
Supporters of the petition say it would offer scholarships to students to attend private schools. Brodie argues that the petition would effectively divert tax funds to private schools — a policy historically labeled as a private school voucher.
DeVos insists that too many students lack a quality education option — and that the solution is to give more families access to private schools.
“I, as an individual taxpayer, would make a choice to designate a portion of my Michigan tax bill to benefit children who are not my own,” DeVos explained to reporters in February. “This is a mechanism for individuals to redirect a portion of their tax bill, whether individual or corporate, to directly help students that need the help the most.”
The opposition coalition, called For MI Kids, For Our Schools, was formed last fall. Among its members are many of the state’s largest education advocacy groups and professional organizations, including:
- Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators
- American Federation of Teachers Michigan
- K-12 Alliance of Michigan
- Michigan Association of School Boards
- Michigan Education Association
- Michigan Education Justice Coalition
- Michigan Parent Teacher Association
- Middle Cities Education Association
The signature-gathering effort, called Let MI Kids Learn, is well underway, with a deadline looming in June. Facing a cash disadvantage, opponents say their first line of defense is to convince the public not to sign the petition, which needs 340,000 signatures, or 8% of the voter turnout from the last gubernatorial election.
“We’re asking voters to decline to sign these petitions,” said Casandra Ulbrich, a Democrat and the president of the Michigan Board of Education. She called the ballot drive “the latest attempt to defund neighborhood schools in favor of a voucher scheme.”
Ulbrich declined to elaborate on the group’s plans for opposing the petition drive. But she noted that opponents were on the lookout for misleading statements by petition gatherers, and said that the coalition could also take legal action if the petition is approved by the legislature. She said the petition would violate an amendment to the Michigan constitution that forbids public funds from going to private schools.
The coalition will face stiff opposition from the DeVos camp, which has raised $1.7 million from the DeVos family and others and is covering the wages of petition gatherers.
By contrast, For MI Kids had $443 in its coffers as of Dec. 31, according to campaign finance records. Ulbrich declined to say whether the coalition has since raised more money.
Schools can’t afford to lose funds, said Rick Catherman, a recently retired Michigan music educator.
“We need to invest in school safety, modern technology, and skills training,” he said. “We need to invest in the people and the things that will make our public schools stronger — not weaker.”
Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at klevin@Chalkbeat.org.
Editor’s note: April 14, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Michigan’s prohibition on providing funds to could become unenforceable if the U.S. Supreme Court finds that “a similar amendment in the Maine constitution is invalid.” The amendments have key differences, and Michigan’s constitution likely won’t be affected by Carson v. Makin.