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Backers of DeVos-led petition miss filing deadline, but say they’re still hopeful

Betsy DeVos stares off in front of her, wearing glasses and a blue jacket.

Let MI Kids Learn, a Michigan ballot initiative backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, would provide tax credits for private-school scholarships.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Backers of a Michigan ballot initiative to provide tax credits for private-school scholarships missed a Wednesday deadline for submitting signed petitions, imperiling their effort to get the initiative passed into law by year end.

But they say they’re hopeful their initiative could still go through.

Petitioners have to meet deadlines laid out by state election officials in order to have their initiatives appear on ballots in the Nov. 8 election. But organizers of the initiative, known as Let MI Kids Learn, have made clear that they don’t intend for their proposal to land on the fall ballot. Instead, they want it to go to a vote in the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Missing this year’s deadline doesn’t stop them from pursuing that path, though it makes it more challenging.

If the petition is certified instead for inclusion on the 2024 general election ballot, state lawmakers could theoretically vote on it late this year, said Matthew Erard, a Detroit-based attorney who represented backers of a ballot initiative to ban fracking in Michigan.

“It would be the equivalent of if they had turned them in really early,” he said.

Under the Michigan constitution, the legislature can pass a ballot initiative into law on its own, without an election and without the threat of a veto from the governor.

But before the legislature can vote on it, election officials need to review the signatures and certify the petition for the ballot.

Since Let MI Kids Learn missed the June 1 deadline, officials don’t have to review its petitions until other petitions that were submitted on time have been reviewed and certified for the November ballot.

That means the petition may not be sent to the legislature until January, if not later.

“Initiatives that choose to submit petitions after today will be reviewed when the Bureau of Elections has capacity and ahead of its deadline for the 2024 election,” said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

The legislature is under GOP control — and likely to support the scholarship plan — through December. But some political observers think that Democrats may do well in the November elections thanks in part to new political maps. If Democrats control one chamber of the statehouse when the new legislative session begins in January, the scholarship plan likely couldn’t win support from the full legislature.

Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for Let MI Kids Learn, told Chalkbeat that the group aims to put the scholarships to a vote in the legislature by the end of 2022.

Let MI Kids Learn — which is funded largely by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and has spent $1.6 million for signature collection — has already collected the required 340,047 signatures, Wszolek said, but it wants to collect 500,000 in case some are invalidated.

“We also know the well-funded special interest groups and school unions that oppose these scholarships will conduct a no-holds-barred effort to stop them from becoming law,” Wszolek said in a statement, adding: “We’ll continue collecting signatures for a few weeks to guarantee that our petitions can survive any challenge.”

Under the proposal, students could receive funds for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, or other educational uses. The funds would come from donations; donors would receive a tax break.

Opponents of the plan say it is similar to a voucher scheme that DeVos has unsuccessfully pushed in the past, and that it violates a constitutional provision that bars the use of public funds for private schools. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer previously vetoed the scholarship proposal, known as the Student Opportunity Scholarship Act.

“We are still going to fight this,” said Arlyssa Heard, a parent organizer for 482Forward, part of a coalition called For MI Kids, For Our Future that opposes the initiative. “We are still going to reach out to legislators” to urge them not to vote the measure through.

The proposed tax credit could cost the state $500 million in the first year, with more than $40 million of that coming from budgets for public schools, according to a nonpartisan analysis from the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency.

Beyond the deadline to submit petitions, the collection of signatures for a ballot initiative is subject to time limits under state law. For a petition to be certified, organizers must collect enough signatures within a 180-day period. If they continue collecting for more than 180 days after they started, they would have to give up some of the signatures they gathered at the start of the 180-day period.

Another restriction: That 180-day span cannot include a gubernatorial election day, so Let MI Kids Learn will have to collect all its signatures before Nov. 8, or start all over again after Nov. 8. 

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at klevin@chalkbeat.org.

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