Michigan Lawmakers Defeat One Education Voucher Scheme, But Another From Betsy DeVos is On The Way

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a briefing at the Department of Education building in Washington on July 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

By Keya Vakil

June 9, 2022

“Voters know that they want to spend public dollars on their local community schools,” state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton) said. “They don’t want to send it into the pockets of people who are taking advantage of our public education system and making dollars and making profits off the backs of our students.”

Need to Know

  • House Bill 5859 would have required the state to use $500 million in federal funds to contract with private vendors, to supply students with educational supplies, opportunities, and services. 
  • Opponents criticized the Republican-introduced bill as a ploy to direct public money to private, for-profit institutions that aren’t accountable to parents or the public. 
  • While HB 5859 was defeated, it represents a broader effort among Michigan Republicans to privatize education through the use of publicly funded grants and vouchers.

MICHIGAN—A handful of Michigan Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday to defeat a bill that would have siphoned half a billion dollars of taxpayer money to private vendors tasked with helping students recover from learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill from Republican state Rep. Julie Alexander was defeated in the House by a 56-51 vote. House Bill 5859 would have required the Michigan Department of Treasury to use $500 million in federal funds from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to create a grant program that offers up to $1,500 in learning resources to eligible students whose education was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning loss has been a well-documented problem during the pandemic, but education advocates criticized Alexander’s bill as a ploy to direct public money to private, for-profit institutions that aren’t accountable to parents or the public. 

“House Bill 5859 is nothing more than another $500 million voucher scheme to funnel taxpayer dollars to for-profit tutoring corporations, just to help these companies make massive profits off the backs of our kids,” Thomas Morgan, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, said in a statement.

Under Alexander’s proposal, the bill would have contracted with a private vendor to establish an online learning loss recovery marketplace that provided grant recipients with eligible supplies, opportunities, and services, such as tutoring services, software, purchases of curricula and materials, and tuition at learning extension centers.

The company behind the marketplace would then create a verification process for other private companies that sought to participate in the marketplace and provide services.

House Bill 5859 sought to appropriate $500 million in funding, but it did not institute caps on how many students could participate in the program, meaning the real price tag could have grown even higher. 

The bill was backed by the conservative, Betsy DeVos-funded Mackinac Center for Public Policy and billionaire Charles Koch’s dark money group, Americans for Prosperity, which has made privatizing public education one of its key goals.

HB 5859 was opposed by the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Association of School Boards, the Middle Cities Education Association, the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, among others. 

“We oppose this legislation because it would create a half billion-dollar fund for private vendors that would not be accountable to the public or parents in any significant way. The bill lacks clearly defined criteria for allocating grants and does not include any way to measure a student’s learning outcome,” the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators wrote in a March letter opposing the bill.

The bill’s failure came at the hands of five conservative Republicans, who joined 51 Democrats to vote against it. 

Former teacher and current state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton) was among those who opposed the bill, calling it an effort to privatize public education. Camilleri said he’s grateful that Republicans opposed the bill, despite their reason for doing so. 

“We were able to get votes from the other side—not because they agreed with us to be very clear,” Camilleri told The ‘Gander. “They didn’t vote for it because they did not want to spend any additional dollars on anything related to education. It was a group of very conservative, Republicans who decided to vote no against it and there were enough of us to stop the bill.”

Camilleri said the bill represents a broader effort among Michigan Republicans to privatize education through the use of publicly-funded grants and vouchers.

One of those other attempts is the Betsy DeVos-funded Let MI Kids Learn petition drive, which effectively seeks to divert taxpayer dollars to private schools. 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 how it would work: 

  1. Wealthy donors like DeVos can donate funds 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.

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. 

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 petition drive missed the June 1 deadline to submit signatures to appear on the November ballot. Paid signature gatherers involved in the drive have also been accused of misleading voters about what the initiative is about—but it could still become law. 

Organizers of the effort claim they received more than the 340,047 required signatures and are working to obtain more before submitting them to the Board of State Canvassers for verification. If the Board confirms the drive received enough authentic signatures, organizers have said they plan to exploit a quirk in the state constitution that allows them to present their initiative to the Republican-led legislature, which could then implement the policy without Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approval. The governor would also be unable to veto the proposal.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, blasted the strategy, saying that it represented an effort to bypass voters and popular opinion.

“It’s no surprise that the DeVos family would try to use underhanded tactics to destroy public education,” Scott said. “Michiganders have soundly rejected vouchers in every form every time they’ve had the opportunity.”

Ninety-two percent of Michigan voters said they want legislators to vote “no” on the bill and instead place it on the ballot, according to a recent poll commissioned by a group opposing the DeVos measure and conducted by EPIC-MRA.

Even though Democrats would have no way to stop the measure on their own, Camilleri is hopeful that there might be an opportunity to once again peel off just enough Republicans to defeat the initiative. If Republicans manage to keep their coalition together and pass the petition, Camilleri said he remains cautiously optimistic that the state Supreme Court would step in.

“The Michigan Constitution is very clear that public dollars go to public schools, so even if there is an attempt to push this through without the governor being able to stop it, I do have some faith in the [state] Supreme Court to overturn any effort to create any any type of voucher program in the state of Michigan, which is what I believe this petition would do,” he said. 

Rather than privatizing public education with vouchers, Democrats and education advocates want lawmakers to use those dollars to improve public schools. 

“We could have sent [American Rescue Plan] dollars directly to public schools to give them tutoring resources that they need at the local level, to expand their staff, to hire more teachers,” Camilleri said. “But that was not a conversation that the Republicans were willing to engage in at this point.”

Morgan, the MEA spokesperson, called on lawmakers to support Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s recently-introduced tutoring plan, which would expand Michigan’s existing school-based tutoring programs.

Whitmer’s MI Kids Back on Track plan would invest $280 million to expand tutoring and other learning supports statewide to help students recover from the disruption of the pandemic, an effort Camilleri supports. 

“Public schools are meant to be the equalizer of our society so that everyone can have access to a public education, everyone can get ahead,” he said. “If we are putting more dollars into tutoring, they need to go into a system that is equitably available to all children. If you create an alternative system, we will always see those who have means and those who are already doing okay to be able to take advantage of those systems and the students who need the money will often not get the services that they need.”

Whitmer’s plan would require approval from Republican legislators, some of whom have already expressed skepticism.

But Camilleri is confident that it aligns more with what Michiganders would want than any of the Republican voucher plans.

“Voters know that they want to spend public dollars on their local community schools,” he said. “They don’t want to send it into the pockets of people who are taking advantage of our public education system and making dollars and making profits off the backs of our students.”


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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