The initiative to create tax-favored scholarships to private schools has high stakes for all Michigan residents, as it could cost millions of dollars in revenue for the state and for schools.
“If any student has any hardship, or has to meet any income requirements, they’ll get a $500 scholarship,” is how one signature gatherer introduced the initiative. “If the student collects any form of disability, or has disabilities, they’ll get $1,100.”
Questioned by a reporter about the purpose of the scholarships, another signature gatherer said, “It’s for college.”
Asked why the petition mentions “nonpublic schools,” a circulator explained: “It’s for charter schools,” noting that she attended a charter school in New York.
In fact, the ballot initiative wouldn’t provide scholarships for college. Instead, the money would go toward tuition to private K-12 schools, private tutors, or textbooks, among other education expenses. Charter schools, which are free and publicly funded, would not benefit. The scholarships would be paid for by individual donors, who would receive a tax break for their contributions.
Circulators repeatedly said that scholarships would go to a vote, even though it will likely be approved by the legislature without ever appearing on a ballot or being subject to a veto by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“I’m encouraged that they’re not telling you something completely phony,” said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Let MI Kids Learn, a group that is circulating two petitions to create the scholarship and tax credit. “They just got some facts wrong.”
He said the campaign has contracted out for more than 900 signature collectors across the state, many of whom are working for subcontractors that are responsible for training. He added: “Like any other employee, some take the training better than others.”
Supporters of the initiative say it would help more families access private school education.
Opponents say it would effectively transfer taxpayer dollars, including school funds, to private schools. Unlike public schools, private schools are not legally bound to educate all children, meaning they can turn away children with disabilities.
Analysts in the Michigan Legislature estimate that the tax credits would cost $500 million in state revenue in the first year, including more than $40 million in revenue for schools.
This wasn’t the first time petition circulators for Let MI Kids Learn have made misleading statements about the initiative to a journalist. In February, circulators told a reporter from MLive that they were “gathering signatures to help special needs kids.”
It is not illegal in Michigan for signature-gatherers to make misleading statements about petitions.
“It’s really up to folks to read the language on the petition to understand the language you’re actually signing,” said Casandra Ulbrich, president of the Michigan Board of Education, who is part of a coalition opposing the scholarship ballot initiative.
DeVos and her family members have donated $350,000 to support Let MI Kids Learn. Other Republican affiliated groups have added more than $1.4 million.
The DeVos family has waged a decades-long campaign to shift public funds to private schools, starting with a failed 2000 campaign to create a system of vouchers in Michigan that would have allowed students to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition. DeVos-affiliated groups are also supporting a lawsuit that aims to eliminate Michigan’s constitutional prohibition on public funding for private school.
Let MI Kids Learn has paid $1.6 million to National Petition Solutions, a California-based firm, for signature gathering, filings show. (Campaign finance records list a Michigan address for the company.)
NPS did not immediately return a request for comment.
A different signature-gathering company hired by NPS for an unrelated campaign trained its employees to mislead Michigan citizens while circulating petitions, the Detroit Free Press reported in 2020.
The signature gatherers in Detroit on Wednesday had set up a table with handwritten signs outside a Michigan Secretary of State office. They were also circulating a petition called Secure MI Vote, which would toughen voter ID rules — and make it harder to vote, opponents say.
They introduced that petition simply by saying it would offer citizens free IDs.
The petition would eliminate fees for Michigan ID cards, which currently cost $10, However, the state already waives those fees for low-income residents receiving state aid.
Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at email@example.com.
Correction: May 27, 2022: An earlier version of this story said the proposed scholarships could be used only for K-12 private school tuition. Families can also use them to pay for textbooks, tutoring, and other education expenses.