A new ballot committee For MI Kids For Our Schools declared during its virtual launch Wednesday that all options are on the table to stop the Betsy DeVos-backed Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiative that public school advocates say would create an unconstitutional voucher system in Michigan.
While the committee didn’t give any specifics Wednesday on actions it would take outside of encouraging residents not to sign the Let MI Kids Learn ballot proposal, it did hint at a possible legal challenge should the proposal reach the signature requirement necessary to be adopted by the state Legislature.
“I would say all options are on the table and I would be surprised if entities such as ours that thought this was unconstitutional and didn’t challenge it based on those constitutional questions,” said Casandra Ulbrich, the president of the State Board of Education, during a virtual press conference Wednesday.
Together the two Let MI Kids Learn petitions would change Michigan tax law to allow donors to claim tax breaks on their contributions to “scholarship-granting organizations,” or newly created nonprofits that would provide parents and families funding for students who fit certain criteria. Individuals or corporations making donations would be eligible for income tax credits equal to their donations.
Critics of the plan say it would help wealthy individuals and corporations avoid paying their fair share of taxes. The law would allow donors who give money to a nonprofit organization, or what architects of the proposals are calling “Student Opportunity Scholarships,” to to receive tax credits on their donations.
The opportunity scholarships could be used for tuition or fees to attend a private school, tutoring or extracurricular activities and other educational resources. Public school students eligible based on income could get up to $500, while students with disabilities could receive up to $1,100. Let MI Kids Learn set a $500 million maximum in tax credits able to be claimed and a 20% increase every year for the next five years.
The ballot committee has had paid circulators collecting signatures since it was approved by the Board of State Canvassers in November.
“Michigan’s public schools are not for sale,” Ulbrich said. “We have an abundance of choice. This isn’t about choice. This is about privatizing education. This is about taking public education dollars and turning them over to private institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers, do not have to report anything to anybody, and can use that money in any way they want.”
DeVos, who served as secretary for former president Donald Trump’s U.S. Department of Education, has backed other pro-private school efforts not popular enough with voters to advance, but Ulbrich warned this effort is different due to the state’s legislative process in relation to citizen initiatives.
“What is new is the political calculation DeVos is counting on the legislature bypassing traditional legislative checks and balances and denying the voters the right to even weigh in on these proposals,” Ulbrich said.
The two Let MI Kids Learn petitions mirror Republican legislation that was vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last October. If the petitions collect just over 340,000 signatures the policy could be adopted by the Legislature without needing the governor’s approval. Any law proposed by initiative petition can be either enacted or rejected by the Legislature without change within 40 calendar days from the time the Secretary of State receives it.
“They aren’t scholarships for kids, they’re vouchers,” said Andrew Brodie, Superintendent, Flat Rock Community Schools and president of the Michigan Association of School Administration board. “The Let MI Kids Learn petition would provide tax credits for private school tuition.”
Opponents of the proposals have argued that implementing the system conflicts with the state Constitution, which requires Michigan to maintain and support a system of free, public elementary and secondary schools.
Democrats have pointed to the state’s Blaine Amendment — the Michigan Constitution prohibits any “payment, credit, tax benefit exemption or deduction, tuition voucher, subsidy grant or loan of public money” from being provided “directly or indirectly to support the attendance of any student at any nonpublic school.”
For MI Kids is made up of education groups including the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, Michigan Education Association and others. The committee has reported receiving just under $450 in in-kind contributions from donations by the Michigan Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.
DeVos and members of her family contributed $400,000 to the Let MI Kids Learn ballot committee in December, campaign finance reports show.
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