WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 08:  U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the U.S. Department of Education July 8, 2020 in Washington, DC. Vice President Pence and the task force members discussed the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic and the reopening of nation's schools in the Fall. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 08: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the U.S. Department of Education July 8, 2020 in Washington, DC. Vice President Pence and the task force members discussed the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic and the reopening of nation's schools in the Fall. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“I know that parents, like me, may be frustrated with the state of our public schools, but let me be clear, the answer to our dreams for our kids’ education does not lie within private schools, let alone giving billionaires and millionaires huge tax breaks,” said Arlyssa Heard, a Detroit public schools special education parent.


Need to Know

  • Betsy DeVos’ plan would create scholarship funds that help eligible Michigan families pay for private school tuition and use state funds to give tax credits to people and corporations that donate to the funds.
  • Her 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.
  • If organizers of the DeVos-funded petition drive collect 340,047 valid signatures by June 1, the Republican-controlled legislature can sign the measure into law without placing it on the actual election day ballot or getting approval from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

MICHIGAN—A coalition of parents, families, educators, and advocacy organizations has launched an effort opposing Betsy DeVos’ latest voucher plan to divert hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds to private schools. 

The For MI Kids, For Our Schools ballot question committee held an introductory Zoom call Wednesday, during which they argued against the DeVos-funded Let MI Kids Learn petition drive, a proposal that aims to find a way around the Michigan Constitution’s ban on using public funds for private schools.

“Betsy DeVos’ deceptively named ‘Let MI Kids Learn’ proposal is a voucher scheme that could take hundreds of millions of dollars out of the School Aid Fund, harming the 90 percent of Michigan students who attend public schools,” said Casandra Ulbrich, PhD, a For MI Kids spokesperson who also serves as the president of the Michigan State Board of Education. “We are asking voters to decline to sign these petitions and stop this voucher scheme in its tracks. Let’s send a message that Michigan students are not for sale.”

DeVos’ plan 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. 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 give parents more options and return some measure of control to them after the upheaval experienced during the pandemic, but parents like Arlyssa Heard, a Detroit public schools special education parent and education organizer with 482Forward, believe the effort would only harm families. 

“I know that parents, like me, may be frustrated with the state of our public schools, but let me be clear, the answer to our dreams for our kids’ education does not lie within private schools, let alone giving billionaires and millionaires huge tax breaks,” Heard said in a press release issued by the coalition. 

RELATED: ‘These Policies Do Attack Michigan Families’: Inside Betsy DeVos and the Michigan GOP’s War on Public Schools

Owen Goslin, an elementary school parent in Cheboygan, said DeVos’ proposal could prove devastating to rural communities like his. 

“In Northern Michigan and other rural communities, the local public school is often the hub of activity for families in the places we live. They’re the physical places where community happens. This DeVos voucher proposal threatens the well-being of our public schools, placing the heart of our communities under threat,” Goslin said. “If you under fund schools, which this proposal aims to do, you undercut the growth and livability of small towns across Michigan.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed a similar scholarship tax credit bill in November, but she may not get a say this time around. 

Supporters of Let MI Kids Learn are exploiting a loophole in the state constitution that would allow the Republican-led legislature to implement the policy without the governor’s approval. If organizers of the petition drive collect 340,047 valid signatures by June 1, 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.

DeVos has spent more than 20 years pushing taxpayer-funded charter schools in Michigan and unsuccessfully pushed for a similar ballot proposal in 2000, which was resoundingly defeated by 69% of voters. These efforts, critics say, are part of an effort to decimate the state’s public school system.

“It’s very clear that the DeVos agenda has been to undercut public education and to make it inferior to private education,” Zeinab Chami, a teacher at Fordson High School in Dearborn, told The ‘Gander last month. “Comparing where Michigan’s public schools used to be to where they are now, I would say [she’s] succeeded.”

Teachers like Chami are worried that the DeVos proposal could further demoralize an already-struggling workforce. A long-term lack of funding and years of low and stagnant pay has driven an exodus of teachers from the workforce, creating a staffing shortage that has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Teacher retirements were up 40% at the end of the 2020-21 school year, and one in five new teachers is leaving the profession within their first five years.

“We are losing about 10,000 school employees in our state each year, and we’re gaining about 5,000 coming into the forces every year,” Thomas Morgan, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said last month.

A recent survey from the MEA published last week found that 20% of active K-12 teachers want to leave the profession for another job within the next two to three years. Respondents cited staffing shortages, students’ mental health, low pay, and the ongoing attacks they’ve experienced over curriculums as reasons for wanting to quit. 

Losing more teachers, of course, would ultimately harm Michigan students. Instead of further defunding schools, as DeVos aims to do, members of the For MI Kids, For Our Schools ballot question committee argue the answer lies in more investments and improvements to the public school system. 

“We need our state leaders to get together and solve this educator shortage before it’s too late and causes more long-term damage to the next generation,” said Rick Catherman, a recently retired music education teacher from South Haven. “That means investing in our schools. It means increasing compensation for veteran and new educators. It means investing in mental health support for students. The last thing we should be doing is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from our schools every year and giving it to private for-profit schools.”

Whitmer is attempting to address many of those requests in her recent budget proposal—which would increase the per-pupil base funding by $435 per student, provide teachers with $2,000-plus retention bonuses each of the next four years, invest in teacher recruitment programs, and expand mental health care for children. 

RELATED: Teacher Bonuses, Better Mental Health Care, Expanded Preschool: Inside Gov. Whitmer’s New Plan to Improve Education

Whitmer’s plan is subject to approval from the Republican-led legislature and State Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has already made clear there’d be some changes to Whitmer’s proposals, promising a “rigorous give and take” during negotiations.

Such a give and take could mean inadequate funding for her public schools, which is what has parents like Arlyssa Heard, the Detroit-area mom, worried. 

“The answer to our kids’ dreams is to invest in our public schools and our communities, and to listen to the needs of parents and students to make sure we get it right,” Heard said in her statement. 

The For MI Kids coalition plans to run a “robust public education campaign” to encourage voters to decline to sign DeVos’ petition. They also plan to pressure legislators in both parties to oppose it as well.

If you’re interested in learning more about For MI Kids or joining the coalition, you can check out their website at ForMiKids.com

The For MI Kids coalition represents a wide array of public education advocates, including parents, educators and school administrators. Members of the coalition include: 482Forward, the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, the Michigan Education Association, the Michigan Education Justice Coalition, the Michigan Parent Teacher Association, the Middle Cities Education Association and Progress Michigan.