In this Oct. 15, 2020, file photo, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the Phoenix International Academy in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
In this Oct. 15, 2020, file photo, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the Phoenix International Academy in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

If the DeVos-backed petition drive succeeds, the Republican-led legislature in Michigan could funnel education money into private schools, all while lining the pockets of rich donors. 

Need to Know

  • Under DeVos’ plan, wealthy donors could fund “scholarship granting organizations” to cover a student’s tuition and educational costs and then get a tax credit from the Michigan government for that donation.
  • Private school students could get up to $7,830, while public school students would only get a maximum of $500 per year. 
  • The proposal would cost Michigan $500 million in 2022 alone and more than $1 billion each year by year five.

MICHIGAN–Billionaire Betsy DeVos is back and is once again trying to defund Michigan’s public school system with a new school voucher-like scholarship program. 

DeVos, a longtime crusader for charter and private schools and the former Education Secretary during the Trump administration, is backing the Let MI Kids Learn petition drive. The effort would create scholarship funds that help eligible Michigan families pay for private school tuition or other educational costs–including the cost of home-schooling–and use state funds to give tax credits to people and corporations that donate to the funds. 

“This is a chance for parents to take control of education in Michigan, in our state,” DeVos said during the initiative’s virtual launch event last week. “This is a chance to help students in every corner of Michigan access the very best educational options for them.”

DeVos’ comments might suggest that the effort will be put forth for a vote by all Michiganders, but that’s not the case. Instead, supporters of the effort are exploiting a quirk in the state constitution that would allow the Republican-led legislature to implement the policy without Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approval.

If organizers of the petition drive collect 340,047 valid signatures within 180 days, the legislature can sign the measure into law without placing it on the actual election day ballot or getting approval from Whitmer. The governor would also be unable to veto the proposal.

“Michigan voters will be shut out of the decision-making process with this proposal. DeVos and her corporate allies’ goal is to pay to get the signatures they need and then ram it through the bought-and-paid for Republican legislature without ever having to go before a vote of the people,” Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement

DeVos and her family members are funding the effort to the tune of $350,000 and other Republican-aligned groups have donated nearly $1.3 million, according to state disclosure filings.

“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,” Scott added.

The Michigan Constitution prohibits the use of public funds for private schools, including tax benefits or credits, but the Devos-backed measure would use an indirect funding mechanism.

Here’s a step-by-step process of how it would work: 

  1. Wealthy donors like DeVos can donate funds–let’s say $1 million, for example–to create “scholarship granting organizations.” 
  2. These organizations would then pay for a student’s tuition–or other educational costs, such as tutoring, transportation, and textbooks–at private schools.
  3. The Michigan state government would then be required to provide donors a tax break for the full size of the donation–in this case, $1 million.

Whitmer previously vetoed a similar scholarship tax credit bill in November. “Simply put, our schools cannot provide the high-quality education our kids deserve if we turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy,” she wrote to lawmakers, adding that she has worked to reverse disinvestment in public education.

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Under the DeVos-backed proposal, students would be eligible for scholarships if their family’s pre-tax income is at or below 200% of the threshold to get free or reduced-price lunch–$98,050 for a family of four–or if they have a disability or live in foster care. 

Nearly 1 million school children could qualify for the program, but the effort would disproportionately benefit private school students, who could get up to 90% of the state’s minimum base for per-pupil funding–$7,830 this year. In contrast, public school students would get only a maximum of $500 per year, or $1,100 if they have a disability.

The plan could hit taxpayers hard, as it would cost Michigan $500 million in 2022 alone and more than $1 billion each year by year five, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency. 

DeVos and her allies claim the effort would simply give parents more options and return some measure of control to them after the upheaval experienced during the pandemic, but such a defunding of public schools could prove devastating. During the 2019-2020 school year, 1.5 million students attended Michigan public schools. In comparison, fewer than 103,000 students attended the 530 non-public schools in the state.

Teachers unions and the Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MiPASS) oppose the effort and are urging Michiganders to “decline to sign” the petition.

“This would not only violate the Michigan State Constitution, it would also take taxpayer dollars out of the School Aid Fund and give them to wealthy donors in the form of a tax credit for donations to nonprofits that benefit private schools,” MiPASS wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday.

Democrats have also blasted the effort. “This is astroturfing,” Sen. Dayna Polehanki of Livonia told Bridge Michigan. “It has the appearance of a grassroots thing–a bunch of moms being angry–but really, these are intricately orchestrated and well-funded movements.”