Former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is backing effort to change Michigan’s education funding system by backing another initiative that would allow tax-incentivizes to a scholarship fund that could be used at private schools.
DeVos headlined an online event Wednesday promoting the ballot initiative, Let MI Kids Learn, a series of two petitions that would change Michigan tax law to allow donors to get tax credits on money given to a scholarship fund that could be used for a variety of educational expenses.
“This is a chance for parents to take control of education in Michigan, in our state,” the West Michigan Republican said. “This is an opportunity to help students in every corner of Michigan access the very best education options for them.”
Liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan argued the proposal would “shut out” Michigan voters because the petition is likely to get adopted by the GOP-led Legislature and, in doing so, avoid not only the 2022 ballot but also the veto pen of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“This is an anti-public education effort that will take funding away from schools during a teacher shortage and will be used to give tax breaks to DeVos and her allies,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director for Progress Michigan.
A longtime proponent of school choice, DeVos led an unsuccessful constitutional initiative in 2000 that would have created a school voucher program.
In addition to leading Wednesday’s discussion on Let MI Kids Learn, DeVos and four of her family members gave about $350,000 to the effort at the end of last year, according to campaign finance disclosures filed Monday. The ballot initiative also received $475,000 from a Republican State Leadership Committee nonprofit and $800,000 from Get Families Back to Work, a group that shares an address with the Republican Governors Association in Washington, DC
Division over the education scholarship proposal has fanned flames between DeVos and Whitmer, who vetoed the plan when it was sent to her in bill form by the Republican-controlled Legislature in the fall. At the time, Whitmer said public schools could not provide “high-quality education” if private schools became “tax shelters for the wealthy.”
DeVos fired back Wednesday at Whitmer’s assertion.
“Anyone who suggests that this is in some way going to benefit wealthy individuals is simply not reading the text accurately, and they are spreading untruths and outright lies,” DeVos said.
“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.”
If it gathers the 340,047 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, the petition is expected to go to the GOP-led Legislature for adoption instead of allowing voters to weigh in on the proposal in the November 2022 election. This approach would avoid a Whitmer veto.
The petition initiative is one of 10 for which circulators will be gathering signatures in the coming months. DeVos encouraged families to visit letmikidslearn.com to request petitions and gather signatures.
Progress Michigan set up a competing website opposing the petition at letmikidslearn.org.
DeVos was joined Wednesday by homeschool, virtual, charter and public school parents who voiced support for the options the program would provide for students if approved, especially in light of school pandemic closures during the COVID-19.
Opponents have said the proposal would violate the Michigan Constitution’s so-called Blaine Amendment, approved by Michigan voters in 1970 to ban public funding for private schools. Legal and petition initiative efforts seeking to undo the amendment in the decades since its passage have been unsuccessful.
But advocates of the plan have maintained the measure does not conflict with the state’s ban on “tax benefits” being used for private school education because it doesn’t constitute direct state aid to private entities. Instead, DeVos said, the tax credit contributions are made at “arms-length” to third-party entities for distribution and “never become state money.”
“We’re also very hopeful that the (US) Supreme Court is going to issue a ruling on the case that came before them from Maine that will strike a big blow to the Blaine Amendment,” DeVos said.
A separate Michigan case challenging the constitutionality of the Blaine Amendment was filed in September by the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which seeks to allow parents to use the current tax-incentivized Michigan Education Savings Plan for nonpublic school tuition.
Under the Let MI Kids Learn petition language, individuals could contribute money toward scholarship-granting organizations under the Student Opportunity Scholarship program for which they would receive a tax credit. The program would be capped at $500 million in contributions each year.
To receive a scholarship from the fund, a student would have to be in a household with an income under 200% of the financial eligibility for free or reduced lunch, have some sort of disability, be in the foster care system or have someone else in their household receiving funds through the Student Opportunity Scholarship program.
The money could be used on tuition or fees for public or nonpublic education or online learning programs, tutoring, extracurricular programs, textbooks or instructional materials, computer hardware, uniforms, standardized test fees, summer school, after-school programs or child care, dual Enrollment, transportation, sports fees or career or technical programs.
The tax credits would mean up to $500 million a year less in the state general fund and some losses from the school aid fund, as well as the possibility that more students and funding could leave public schools for nonpublic institutions.