IN THIS HIGH-STAKES ELECTION YEAR, voters are juggling a number of proposals, policies, and issues as they prepare to head to the polls. With so many topics to follow and news breaking every day, it’s no surprise that some politicians and political interest groups are actively trying to game the system.
This four-part series is about a quirk in our state government that lets them do that. This quirk has been used for more than 100 years, and despite the fact that it began as a way to let Michiganders have a say in our laws, it’s become into a pathway for politicians and special interest groups to slip past voters.
This year, it’s being used to put more power and more money into the hands of the wealthy.
We’re not flashing it in bright lights across your screen, demanding that you act now lest you lose your liberty. Instead, we’re dropping a multi-week investigation by our team into two explainers, and two rabbit holes – which you can read, share, and ask questions about as you decide which candidates and policies deserve your vote at the Nov. 8 general election.
At the center of this series is the idea of a loophole.
Jump to any part of this series:
- PART 1: THE LOOPHOLE
- PART 2: THE DECEPTION
- Who’s paying for this?
- PART 3: THE SCHEME
- PART 4: THE SOLUTION?
- PART 5: THE PARTING THOUGHT
PART 1: THE LOOPHOLE
816 words; 6-minute read
Just like any legislator can introduce a bill, Michigan citizens also have the right to propose new laws. Such a proposal is called a citizen initiative.
For a legislator to pass a law, they must convince a majority of their fellow legislators to vote for it. Then, the governor can either sign the law or veto it.
For citizens to pass an initiative, they must get a majority of their fellow citizens to vote for it. To do that, they first ask people to sign petitions. If a petition gets enough signatures in a certain timeframe, it becomes a ballot measure. A ballot measure is a law, issue, or question which goes on a ballot for voters to decide.
If more than 50% of people vote for the ballot measure, it becomes law 10 days later. That new law cannot be vetoed by the governor. This small detail offers the registered voters of Michigan more collective power than the Legislature.
Here’s where things start to get a little weird—but not yet deceptive. We’ll get to that.
Michigan is one of only nine states with a citizen initiative process that can become “indirect.” An indirect initiative essentially means that once a petition has enough signatures to become a ballot measure, lawmakers can choose to intercept it and pass it into law before it gets to the ballot.
Why would they do that?
- To go around the citizens. If lawmakers believe a majority of citizens will vote against an initiative they favor, they can simply pass it themselves and prevent it from appearing on the ballot.
- For more control over the initiative. When citizens vote to pass an initiative and it becomes law, any changes legislators want to make to it over time would require a three-fourths majority vote. However, if legislators indirectly pass the initiative, they can change the new law in their next session with a simple majority. (You’ll hear more about a recent example of this later.)
- To go around the governor. When a legislator proposes a law and a majority of their legislative colleagues vote to pass it, the governor has 14 days to veto the bill. With an indirect initiative, the governor does not have veto power—creating a potentially dangerous combination of big-money special interests and partisan legislative control.
HERE’S A QUICK, HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLE OF HOW THIS COULD PLAY OUT:
Michigan dentists want to make more money, so they lobby their lawmakers for a new state law that forces all Michiganders to eat candy – which would inevitably result in more cavities across the state. Fueled by campaign donations from the sugar industry, lawmakers attempt to pass the plan into law.
The governor, who understands that forcing people to eat candy is a terrible idea, vetoes the legislation. Lawmakers are unable to override the veto, and the fledgling legislation dies.
Then, sugar industry lobbyists decide to throw a few million dollars at a new ballot initiative drive, called MI Sweet State, that would bring the new candy requirements to voters on the next election ballot. They hire hundreds of paid signature gatherers, specifically to target hungry people with a sweet tooth, and a marketing strategy firm to sugarcoat the dangers of excessive candy consumption.
Doctors are up in arms over the concept. Teachers rail against the impact so much sugar would have on learning. Even polling shows that most people don’t want to be forced to eat candy every day.
But with only 340,047 signatures standing in the way of veto-proof legislation, and with so many signature-gatherers— paid per signature—circulating the state, it’s not hard to get their petitions filed and submitted on time.
Knowing the issue might not pass the popular vote, sugar-industry backed lawmakers watch for MI Sweet State’s ballot initiative to come in. When it does, they step in and pass the law before Election Day.
Since MI Sweet State had enough signatures to become an initiative, it doesn’t matter what the governor or registered voters think. The lawmakers can indirectly pass it. Dentists everywhere rejoice.
Since 1963, when Michigan’s current Constitution was ratified, there have been 11 instances of the Legislature approving ballot initiatives proposed by the citizens before they could get on the ballot. Nearly all were taken up by Republican-majority state Legislatures. Four of those 11 were to restrict abortion rights.
Most recently, the indirect initiative process was used to remove Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s health emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. That effort, known as Unlock Michigan, was a citizen initiative in 2020 and was indirectly passed by the Republican-majority Legislature before it could reach the ballot.
At this point, you might be wondering if this indirect initiative process is entirely above-board. It is. That is to say, it’s legal. Is it democratic? Well, non-partisan experts have their doubts, and have made recommendations to improve the system. However, Legislators haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on the need for reform.
That’s Part 2.
PART 2: THE DECEPTION
A RABBIT HOLE
3,870 words; 30-minute read
In Part 2 of this series, we put the indirect initiative loophole under the microscope to highlight three levels of deception that can be used to exploit the process. We also introduce you to Let MI Kids Learn, an initiative hoping to land in the Legislature’s lap later this year.
LET MI KIDS LEARN is a campaign to establish two things: a voucher-like program called “Michigan Student Opportunity Scholarships,” and tax credits for the individuals and corporations that donate to them.
Here’s how it would work:
Corporations and individuals donate to nonprofits, which manage the Student Opportunity Scholarships.
Those nonprofits then provide funding to qualified families for a list of approved expenses—namely to help afford private school tuition, for homeschooling expenses, and for private tutoring companies.
The corporations and individuals who donated to the nonprofits would receive a 100% tax credit on their donation, which they can use to offset their own state tax bills.
Let MI Kids Learn started out as a pair of Senate bills, proposed in October 2021 by Sens. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) and Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte). They were passed along party lines in both chambers, with the exception of Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland Township), who voted against his Republican colleagues.
“I do not believe we should create a tax credit to incentivize this program,” Reilly said of his vote. “Nor do I believe there is anything to stop private businesses and individuals from creating and donating to scholarship programs under our current tax structure as written.”
Both bills died when they were vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November 2021.
Read more about Let MI Kids Learn in Part 3: The Scheme.
Deception Level 1 of 3: More Special Interests Groups = More Money = More Signatures
In Michigan, initiatives currently require 340,047 signatures to make the ballot—a threshold that changes every four years, based on 8% of the turnout in the most recent gubernatorial election.
To get those signatures, citizen organizers use both volunteers and hired help to stand outside grocery stores, post offices, and on busy street corners asking people to sign their petitions. It makes sense that groups with more money can afford more hired help—in fact, several signature-gathering companies provide temporary workers just for that purpose, many of whom get paid up to $20 per signature. You might remember hearing about some of them back in May, when multiple Republican gubernatorial candidates were found to have fraudulent signatures on their petitions to run for governor.
It’s been a tough year for signature-gathering. Between a long winter and labor shortages, politicians have seen prices rise from $3 per signature to $20 per signature. They’re bringing in people from out of state to fill the gaps—and there’s often no real oversight during the gathering process beyond what each individual campaign decides to put in place.
The gubernatorial signature fraud scandal, for example, pushed one campaign—Secure MI Vote— to pre-emptively toss out about 20,000 signatures amid efforts to ensure their validity. The group’s spokesman, Jamie Roe, told The ‘Gander that he believed they had enough signatures, but wanted to be especially careful because of attention drawn to potential forgeries in the governor’s race.
The recent issues with fraudulent signatures make sense, especially when paired with market demands that put each signature at a premium, according to experts.
“When folks realize the kind of payday that can come when you’re collecting 20,000 signatures at $20 a pop, people start to skirt the rules,” political advisor John Sellek told Michigan Radio in June.
In Michigan, there’s no rule against paying by the signature, or even paying someone for their signature. There’s also no rule that says signature-gatherers can only work on one campaign—meaning the person who stops you outside of CVS and asks you to sign their petition on voters’ rights might also have a petition for governor in their bag.
Let MI Kids Learn has been well funded by the Betsy DeVos family and connected groups, who by April of this year had made donations of more than $1 million, according to campaign finance filings from that month. And the campaign has already spent more than that on signature-gathering alone.
The takeaway: The more funding a campaign has, the more people they can put in front of every busy building in town—even if that means paying big bucks to bring in temporary workers, sometimes even from shady signature-gathering firms, in order to push an issue into law.
Deception Level 2 of 3: They Can Lie to You
In 2020, the Unlock Michigan initiative—mentioned in Part 1, which reduced the governor’s health emergency powers—technically had received enough valid signatures to make the ballot, but not without widespread controversy over whether or not signers understood the mission.
In September of that year, the Detroit Free Press broke a story about a secret video taken of a petitioner coach for Unlock Michigan training signature-gatherers on “giving voters false information, illegally collecting signatures without witnessing them, trespassing on private property, and even lying under oath.”
The coach reportedly told signature gatherers that he didn’t want them to do illegal things—but that they could if they wanted. He then told them exactly how to do illegal things, while only warning them to avoid directly forging signatures.
At one point in the video, the coach instructed petitioners to tell undecided voters that signing the petition would simply put the issue up for a vote—something everyone could have a say on.
A review from Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office found that the techniques used by Unlock Michigan were unethical, but there was not enough evidence to bring forward criminal charges.
“It is clear from this investigation that some paid circulators may resort to unethical practices in order to fulfill the demands of their clients,” Nessel said.
You might be thinking that 2022—a year when both the Michigan gubernatorial petition scandal and the Jan. 6 Special Committee hearings loom like a cloud over an already-fraught election cycle—would be different. But earlier this year, more video evidence revealed that paid petitioners are still lying to potential signers. In the video, a petitioner in Kalamazoo is collecting signatures for Let MI Kids Learn, Secure MI Vote, and Unlock Michigan 2 (a new version of the initiative passed in 2020). When describing the proposals, he says that they’re measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
In Lansing, one resident experienced this deception firsthand. Here’s her story.
KATRINA ROBINSON was attending an art fair with her husband and daughter when she noticed people gathering signatures on petitions for abortion rights and education reform.
Robinson considers herself politically active and had already volunteered to collect signatures for Reproductive Freedom for All, a campaign to amend the state’s Constitution with provisions protecting reproductive rights. She said a sign near the signature gatherers caught her eye. It read: “Want up to $8,000 in additional funding for your kid’s education? Registered voters sign here.”
Approaching the petitioner, Robinson saw an opportunity to teach her 12-year-old daughter about the importance of being politically active and democratically engaged. She read the lines at the top of the petition, a three-sentence summary describing the campaign’s aim to establish a scholarship fund for low-income and underprivileged children. It was a mission that, on its surface, she agreed with.
Robinson had been a foster mom for three years before adopting her daughter, and she assumed the petition would supplement programs such as Fostering Futures, a state-supported scholarship program that awards college scholarships to children in foster care.
Poring over the lines so carefully that she accidentally underlined a segment of the petition with her uncapped pen, Robinson went on to sign it, believing she was supporting a cause she valued. As she talked about the process with her daughter, Robinson’s husband, Justin, also signed the petition.
Later that day, the family was approached by a woman attending the fair, who said she’d overheard what Robinson was saying and thought she may have misunderstood the petition. The stranger explained that the petition was not supporting scholarships to colleges, but instead was Let MI Kids Learn, a voucher program that would divert millions of dollars in public school funds to private and charter schools.
After researching the petition more and learning of her mistake, Robinson went back to the petitioner to ask why he didn’t stop her when he heard her inaccurately explaining the petition to her daughter.
According to Robinson, he replied: “Well, that’s why you’re supposed to read it before signing.”
Michigan law has no provision to enable a voter to remove their name from a petition, even if they feel they were given misleading information about the campaign. Robinson, however, took matters into her own hands—simply asking to see the sheet and then crossing her name off the list
“I thought that was so nice and so convenient to make people’s voices heard—to have these canvassers out and about with clipboards where you can sign,” Robinson said. “It’s supposed to be safe, and it’s supposed to make it easier for the vast majority of the population.”
Now, though, Robinson is feeling disillusioned with the deception behind the process. When she went home, she created a Facebook post warning friends of what had happened to her:
“Please use this personal vulnerability as a reminder to stop and look for more detail about the petition you are signing, and always show up to vote to make your final decision counted,” she said.
That brings us to the third deception tactic: campaigns that plan to bypass voters from the start.
Deception Level 3 of 3: Planning to Cut the Line
Here’s the 340,047-signature question: Who would want to keep this process on the books? For the answer, have a look at why people like it.
IT’S EASIER FOR LAWMAKERS.
If you’re a legislator, your party has a majority in the House and the Senate, and your governor is from the opposing political party (and therefore wields a potentially partisan veto), an indirect initiative must look like a pretty efficient way to get things done.
Indeed, said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who’s now a senior project manager at the Lincoln Project.
“It has only been in the last decade that we’ve seen this preponderance of attempts to use this just to ram through partisan legislation,” Timmer said. “Somebody just woke up and said, ‘Hey, we can do this. We have the majority in the legislature but we don’t have a willing governor. Let’s just sideline the governor and do this anyway, because we have the money to.’”
To put Timmer’s quote into context, here’s a look at party control in Michigan over the past 20 years:
Jamie Roe, the spokesperson from Secure MI Vote, said that he sees no problem with letting the legislature decide the fate of ballot initiatives, referencing many other laws that came to be through the process. Secure MI Vote, he said, reflects the will of voters.
But Secure MI Vote missed the deadline to turn in their petitions for the 2022 election, and is instead hoping that a late submission will still get their initiative in front of the Legislature – in other words, the group is hoping the Legislature will pass their initiative indirectly. [Editor’s Note: If the Legislature chooses not to pass the Secure MI Vote initiative, it’ll go on the ballot in 2024.]
“We wish that we didn’t have to go through this process, but Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed every other common sense proposal that’s been a part of this,” he said. “Governor Whitmer could’ve made this a lot easier by signing those into law. She forced us to go this route.”
Roe’s claim about the will of the voters is worth pausing on. If the group behind a ballot initiative is convinced that their proposal does, in fact, reflect the will of the voters, it’d probably get passed a lot faster by simply letting voters vote for it. That’s because when voters pass a ballot measure, it becomes law 10 days later. If legislators intercept a ballot measure and pass it themselves, it takes effect 90 days after the end of the session in which it was enacted. The current session will end on Dec. 31. There is an option to immediately enact the law, but it requires a two-thirds approval from both the House and the Senate.
In 2018, a popular citizen initiative was heading for the ballot. Voters had overwhelmingly polled in favor of the measure’s two proposals: a minimum wage hike to $12 an hour, and new paid sick-leave options for Michigan workers.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature stepped in and passed the initiative before Election Day. That meant that instead of becoming law 10 days after Election Day (which is how it works when citizens vote to pass an initiative), it slowed the bill’s progress to 90 days into the following year. Then the Legislature then made the dramatic move of changing the initiative. Those changes included slowing down the timeline for the minimum wage increase – reaching $12 an hour by 2030 – eliminating the increase for tipped workers, and exempting a large number of small businesses from the sick-leave law.
Had the Legislature proposed their amendments before Election Day, the initiative process would have required them to offer the changed version as a different option to voters, in addition to the citizen initiative. Had voters passed the original legislation, the Legislature would have required a three-quarters vote to amend the proposal after it became law. Before 2018, no Legislature in Michigan history had ever adopted a piece of legislation ahead of a citizen vote just to take the teeth out of the proposal.
SIDE NOTE: That’s probably because before 2018, it was considered unconstitutional. The legal understanding of the initiative process was that the Legislature could not adopt and then amend a voter-initiated proposal in the same two-year legislative session. In fact, in 1964, then-Attorney General Frank Kelly made it clear that this was an accurate reading of the state Constitution. But 54 years later, Attorney General Bill Schuette, a prominent Republican, said the Republican-majority Legislature could adopt and amend the proposal that had been, in its original form, so popular with voters. Then-Governor Rick Snyder, also a Republican, signed off on those changes during the final weeks of his term.
Voters who felt shorted by these moves recently got good news. On July 19, four years of legal challenges paid off when Michigan Court of Claims Judge Douglas Shapiro ruled that the 2018 adopt-and-amend procedure was unconstitutional. This story is still developing.
IT’S EASIER FOR ORGANIZERS.
Just because initiatives are ballot proposals doesn’t mean the people behind them want them to end up on the ballot. Let’s say you’re one of those money-hungry dentists from our hypothetical example in Part 1 of this series. You know you can get at least 340,047 people to sign your petition to put “MI Sweet State” on the ballot. But convincing a majority of Michigan voters to approve your plan – especially with so many experts weighing in on how it would hurt Michiganders – will be difficult.
However, the majority party in Michigan’s House and Senate are tight with the sugar industry. So, knowing that petitions for ballot proposals must be turned in 160 days before the general election, but that the Legislature only needs 40 days before the election to consider an initiative, you miss the first deadline. Sure, the Bureau of Elections, who verifies the signatures on petitions, won’t be pleased. Spokespeople from their office might say things like, “We are under no obligation to validate signatures that have come in after the filing deadline until the next election cycle,” but you don’t care. You’re not in it for the ballot, anyway.
You offer a late submission. You won’t make the ballot, but if the Bureau of Elections finds time to review the signatures before the election, your initiative will make it into the hands of your sugar-friendly legislators. MI Sweet State gets its legislative vote, the people have been bypassed, and the governor cannot veto the legislation. Candy for everyone.
Nancy Wang, executive director for democracy advocacy group Voters Not Politicians, said that many Michigan citizens aren’t aware that signing a petition for a ballot measure may not put an initiative on the ballot at all – that there’s a chance it could instead be swept up directly by the Legislature.
“We’re finding that the campaigns and the circulators that they’re hiring, their interest is in not explaining what they’re trying to do to the people,” Wang said. “They’re incentivized to lie, to withhold information, and because they can, that’s exactly what they do out in the field.”
“We always looked at it like, we’ll do whatever the word of the law will allow us to do,” said Jeff Timmer, the ex-GOP leader. “Some of those areas might be a little gray, but we’re going to push those envelopes. Now, it seems like nobody gives a shit whether those areas are gray or clearly you dipped your toe over those lines.”
Katrina Robinson, the woman who signed the petition in Clawson, said when she signed, she believed it was to make the proposal eligible for a vote. She had no idea, and wasn’t told, that the Republican-majority state Legislature could simply bypass the people.
“Oh, that makes it even worse,” Robinson said.
Let MI Kids Learn turned in their petitions to the Bureau of Elections on Aug. 10—more than two months past the deadline. It’s unclear if they’ll be reviewed in time to head to the Legislature later this year.
THEY CAN SET UP THE SECRETARY OF STATE.
What if you get the timing wrong?
What if you, a dentist pushing MI Sweet State, miss the deadline, and when you do eventually turn in your petitions they get stalled with the busy Bureau of Elections?
While the bureau is obligated to review petitions submitted by the filing deadline, they are, in fact, under no obligation to validate signatures on petitions filed after the deadline until the next election cycle – in this case, 2024.
“Initiatives that chose to submit petitions after the June 1 deadline will be reviewed when the Bureau of Elections has capacity and ahead of its deadline for the 2024 election,” Tracy Wimmer, spokesperson for the Department of State, said.
For some campaigns, that’s not good enough.
“It’s our sincere hope that she’ll choose to review the signatures quickly,” said Jamie Roe, whose Secure MI Vote petitions have still not been filed.
The “she” in his statement is the person whose office oversees the Bureau of Elections: Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Roe, along with Fred Wszolek, spokesperson for Let MI Kids Learn, haven’t said so directly, but they’ve been quick to imply that Benson—a Democrat up for reelection this year—would be to blame for any delay the Bureau of Elections might have in reading their groups’ petitions.
Here’s Roe: “Secretary of State is accountable like every other office in the state, and we will make sure that people know that the petitions have been submitted. If she chooses to delay, she’s going to be accountable for the reason that she chose to delay.”
Jeff Timmer said he thinks that the Let MI Kids Learn campaign has a two-pronged strategy—get the proposal passed by the current Legislature while it’s securely controlled by Republicans, and at the same time use the issue to rally against Benson ahead of the election.
What they’ll claim the Bureau of Elections is doing is a “deliberate effort to sweep these under the rug to deny you your right to petition,” Timmer said. “[They’ll say,] ‘Look at this very partisan secretary of state who is against freedom in educational choice and is against safeguarding our elections.’”
“This is not a matter of politics,” said Jan BenDor, who is heading up an initiative to close the loophole. Yet “the Republicans are going to claim that Jocelyn Benson is playing politics.”
Fringe conservatives have claimed that Benson, who was elected as a Democrat in 2018, has shown political bias in overseeing elections – particularly the 2020 Presidential Election. The campaign homepage of her Republican-endorsed opponent, Trump-backed outsider Kristina Karamo, says: “It’s time to end the politicization of the Office of Secretary of State and restore the rule of law.”
Karamo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Who’s paying for this?
Campaign finance records released in late July show that billionaire Betsy Devos and her family dumped millions of dollars into the Let MI Kids Learn initiative—and kept the money flowing even after the June 1 deadline passed to make it on the ballot this year.
The $2.5 million post-deadline thrust in funding (attributed largely to the DeVos family, with a few other smaller-scale donors) only corroborates what has already been said by campaign organizers since the beginning: The goal of the voucher initiative is to ram the initiative through the legislature, bypassing a public vote.
All told, the Let MI Kids Learn campaign has collected more than $8 million in funding. Of the $8 million, the DeVos family directly pitched in $5 million—not counting money from their foundations— with $2 million arriving after the deadline.
Despite failing to submit the required signatures by the deadline, Betsy DeVos herself gave an extra $500,000 on June 15, records show. So did Dick DeVos. And Maria DeVos. And Doug DeVos. The DeVos-funded American Federation for Children also pitched in another $250,000.
Let MI Kids Learn’s funding also stood out among a sea of other petition drives because of its backing from prominent national groups and Michigan billionaires—and an abnormally high amount of spending, especially considering its ultimate failure to actually meet the deadline. It spent more than $7.4 million in signature-gathering efforts, paid to National Petition Management. If the initiative received only the minimum requirement of signatures—340,047—it would have, in essence, paid $22 per signature.
The group had only 22 donations of less than $100 from individual donors throughout the campaign, and tallied 38 donations of $10,000 or more—including more than $1 million from the dark-money PAC Get Families Back to Work, a 501(c)4 which is registered at the same address as the Republican Governors Association in Washington, DC, two blocks from the White House. The right-wing PAC, which doesn’t have to disclose its funders, has also run campaign ads for conservative gubernatorial candidates in Kansas and Alabama.
Michiganders for Fair Lending, a 2022 ballot proposal to cap the interest rates that collectors charge on payday loans, brought in $7.3 million and paid only $6.4 million in a campaign that submitted more than 400,000 signatures—though it still fell short of this year’s ballot, following a recent Bureau of Elections review, which revealed fraud in more than 130,000 signatures.
Raise the Wage Michigan, a 2022 proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15, submitted 610,000 signatures on July 26 to the Michigan Department of State in an attempt to qualify for the 2024 ballot. It raised and spent only $3.2 million as of the latest signature submission deadline, records showed.
2020’s Unlock Michigan paid National Petition Management nearly $1.7 million on signatures of about $1.8 million in contributions—about five times less than what Let MI Kids Learn paid for its campaign to attempt to collect the same number of signatures, records showed.
PART 3: THE SCHEME
1,713 words; 13-minute read
Remember: Let MI Kids Learn filed their petitions with the Bureau of Elections on Aug. 10. The deadline for making the 2022 ballot was June 1. However, if those petitions are validated by the Board of State Canvassers, they’ll still qualify for an indirect initiative passage by the Legislature, skipping the voters—and a veto—entirely.
Ideas like Let MI Kids Learn are being supported by a majority of the Republican candidates for state office this year. Although it may seem like it’s losing steam, we’ve watched the DeVos coalition reinvent this concept too many times over the past 20 years to think a missed deadline will slow them down.
Let MI Kids Learn says they work by allowing individuals and corporations to donate to Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). Those nonprofit SGOs then award scholarships to qualifying students to use for things like private school tuition, special needs assistance, or school supplies like laptops. This isn’t cash—it’s funding for program-approved educational expenses sold by program-approved vendors.
Many are calling Let MI Kids Learn a voucher program—a term used to describe a program that uses tax dollars to help subsidize private education, according to the National School Boards Association. Let MI Kids Learn operates slightly differently, but in essence, still allows tax dollars to be put toward private education.
Let MI Kids Learn says they’ll pay for:
- 90% of Michigan’s per-pupil allowance for students who attend private school or homeschool (approximately $8,235 for 2022-2023)
- $500 for public school students
- $1,100 for special need public school students
According to the Education Data Initiative, the average tuition for a private elementary school in Michigan is $8,250. It’s $19,810 for secondary schools. According to the US Department of Education’s Special Education Expenditure Project, the average expenditures for a student with disabilities was $12,474—and this was using data from 1999-2000, but it’s still the department’s best estimate. Adjusting for inflation, that’s $21,885.36 for one student with special needs, for one year.
For Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, a professor in Wayne State University’s College of Education, this program is “doubling down” on parents using public money to advance their own children’s educational opportunities.
“What we know from decades of research on school choice and moves towards these sorts of models,” she said, “is that they tend to benefit the most advantaged kids.”
In addition to the cost of private school tuition—which, to be clear, would not be fully covered by the Let MI Kids Learn “scholarships,” there are other extenuating factors that determine whether a student is able to attend a private school.
Lenhoff said some parents may not be able to afford or provide transportation. According to the National Coalition for Public Education, there are also expenditures like books and uniforms. Additional costs for private school education can ring up to $3,700 on average, according to the Education Data Initiative.
There’s the further issue, Lenhoff said, of private schools being selective about which students they accept.
“Public schools have an obligation to educate all children, no matter what their educational and academic skills are at the time, no matter what their disabilities or abilities are,” she said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in fall 2019, 1% of students with disabilities were enrolled in general private schools. In contrast, 95% were enrolled in general public schools.
“The private schools that [Let MI Kids Learn is] investing in are allowed to discriminate against kids with special needs, kids with autism and disabilities,” Morgan said. “So it’s beyond ludacris that they would have the audacity to try to promote their campaign using kids with special needs as a front. It’s disgusting.”
THE TAX CUTS
Those individuals and corporations who donate to Let MI Kids Learn’s SGOs can claim a tax credit on up to 100% of their donations. In its first year, the program’s cap is $500 million, with a 20% increase in the following years. Credits could be carried forward to offset taxes every year until the credit is used up.
What does that mean? It means in its first year, the state would lose half a billion dollars in tax revenue. Credits claimed against the Corporate Income Tax would directly impact the state’s General Fund; meanwhile, credits claimed against the Individual Income Tax would impact both the General Fund and the School Aid Fund.
“It’s a deceiving name,” said Thomas Morgan, a communication consultant for the teacher’s union Michigan Education Association, of Let MI Kids Learn.
He said all this program will do is take away money from public schools when they need it most.
“Our schools are already facing a growing educator shortage, as well as many other issues,” Morgan said. “This voucher proposal would only make the problem worse.”
Let MI Kids Learn would not only take away funding from public schools on the front end, but the initiative’s private and homeschool incentives would mean fewer kids in Michigan’s classrooms on “Count Day,” the day when the number of K-12 public school students across the state are counted to determine how much funding schools get. Even a 1% decrease in enrollment would reduce K-12 funding by an estimated $124 million.
Eaton Rapids Public Schools superintendent Bill DeFrance said he’s on the fence about alternative schooling options, like charter schools. But he doesn’t like that when these proposals come up, they’re one-off plans that don’t make up for the revenue loss.
“If you put this in place, and you put the tax credits in place, maybe we need to have the state income tax move up a tenth of a percent,” he said. “I don’t like tax increases, but if you’re going to cut the revenue flow, you’re going to replenish it.”
He said he would like to see the state introduce a 10-year package to account for revenue loss to keep public school funding consistent.
But, DeFrance said, he believes those behind the Let MI Kids Learn proposal, like Betsy DeVos, have defunding public schools as one of the intended goals of their proposal.
Morgan echoed his sentiment:
“[DeVos and her supporters have] been trying for decades now to privatize our schools and make profits off the backs of Michigan students,” he said. “They don’t really care about the educational outcomes for our kids.”
THE KIDS WHO ARE LEFT BEHIND
When they came back to the classroom from the pandemic lock-downs, DeFrance noticed that students’ social and emotional development seemed stunted compared to a normal school year.
“We had kids that had just a partial year with us in kindergarten,” he said. “They’d come back in second grade. So you can picture a lot of those skills were unlearned.”
DeFrance said that schools act as a “social correction point,” for students, where they learn to do things such as getting in line and leaving places in a timely manner.
COVID-19 put that learning on pause. The pandemic also exacerbated student mental health to the point where the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health a national emergency.
“I think they need more mental health support,” DeFrance said. “I think they need more attention.”
To provide the support that students were needing, Eaton Rapids Public Schools put some of its federal funding into reducing class sizes and providing more counselors.
DeFrance said that if they lose funding, they’ll have to gradually increase class sizes back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Which I don’t think, right now, is healthy,” he said. “Either for staff or kids.”
If funding is cut right now, he added, it would be the exact opposite of what students need.
Lenhoff, the Wayne State professor, put this into a broader context.
“If a student leaves the system or certain funding is cut from the system, that doesn’t mean that the cost of running that public school system suddenly decreased by that same amount,” Lenhoff said.
Public schools are still expected to run at the same level as funding fluctuates, she said. Regardless of funding, public schools must meet standards and benchmarks set at both the state and national level.
While some things, like class sizes, can be adjusted, there are other expenses that the school cannot reduce. For example, the Eaton Rapids Public School District covers 125 square miles, much of which they have bussing for. DeFrance said about 10% of their budget goes towards this.
“We won’t be able to cut bussing,” he said.
Those who are left behind by Let MI Kids Learn would find themselves in increasingly underfunded schools. What’s worse, those are the kids who are statistically more likely to be economically disadvantaged, culturally deprioritized, or have special needs. Also keep in mind: Public schools aren’t just about education.
“Families rely on them for all kinds of things,” she said. “Including nutrition and health services, and support connecting to other social benefits.”
Rural areas would be especially impacted, where mental and behavioral issues are 18.3% more common, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Schools often are where students receive counseling for mental and behavioral health issues, as reported by the Rural Health Information Hub.
“I just think there’s more evidence now than ever that schools need to be well-funded so that they can serve the role that society’s asking them to serve well,” Lenhoff said. “Instead of taking money away from them and making their jobs even harder.”
A VULNERABLE CONSTITUTION
In Michigan, the use of public dollars for private education of any kind is banned in the state’s Constitution. And in 2000, voters rejected an amendment that would relax that ban. But a lawsuit is currently pending challenging the 1970 constitutional amendment, and you’ll never guess whose money is tied up with the plaintiffs.
The DeVos-backed Mackinac Center is representing Jill and Joseph Hile, Kalamazoo parents who claim the amendment amounts to religious discrimination. A recent US Supreme Court ruling added fuel to this fire, finding that the state of Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a taxpayer-funded program that pays for private school tuition in areas of where no public high school is available.
If the Hiles win their case, they’ll blow the door wide open for DeVos and her allies.
PART 4: THE SOLUTION?
A RABBIT HOLE
770 words; 6-minute read
The role of ballot measures in US democracy dates back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the movement regained steam during the Progressive Era, at the beginning of the 20th century.
At that time, voters had become disillusioned by major stories of corruption, and states throughout the country introduced citizen-led ballot initiatives, constitutional amendments, and referendums to encourage a more direct form of democracy.
Michigan’s 1963 Constitution said that any ballot initiative must start with a petition. The petition must get a minimum number of signatures on it, equal to 8% of the last general election’s voting base, to qualify for the ballot. The provision whereby the Legislature could take up legislation without worry of a veto was designed to expedite the process for initiatives popular among voters.
But many, including Gov. Whitmer, suggest that the law as it stands is antiquated.
“Is it a good system of government? No,” Whitmer told the Detroit Free Press at the Mackinac Policy Conference.
“The reason, of course, that most states don’t [have something like this] is that it’s completely undemocratic,” said Nancy Wang, the leader of Voters Not Politicians. “It makes no sense with our system of government because it allows [for] a Legislature like ours that is completely out of touch with what voters want, who pass laws that no one supports.”
HOW CAN THE LOOPHOLE BE CLOSED?
Closing the loophole completely would take a constitutional amendment. “Citizen Initiative Reform Michigan” is a proposal to do so, backed by the group MI Right to Vote, led by Jan BenDor (from Part 2). Constitutional amendments require the signatures of 10% of voters from the previous gubernatorial election, not 8% like initiatives. However, like the Let MI Kids Learn initiative, Citizen Initiative Reform Michigan didn’t get enough signatures by the June 1 deadline. The group is now setting their sights on the 2024 ballot.
Legislators can introduce bills to tighten the gaps. However, they’d have to pass through a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, as it currently stands. In 2021, state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) sponsored a package that would hold paid petition firms accountable if circulators knowingly lied to registered voters in an attempt to get them to sign a petition. State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) also sponsored a package that would create a way for people who have signed a petition to legally remove their name by submitting a written request to the Department of State. Senators Curtis Hertel, Jr. (D-Lansing), Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) also sponsored bills that limit the loophole’s power. Here’s an easy-to-read press release from 2021, that does a good job of describing them. Until more legislators who care about closing the gaps are elected, however, those bills are unlikely to move forward.
Follow the recommendations of the non-biased Citizens Research Council of Michigan. For years, the objective nonprofit group has published reports about Michian’s indirect initiative. Two recent ones offer strong recommendations for how to reform the process to make it more secure, transparent, and less vulnerable to being exploited.
Redistricting may move the needle. BenDor also took part in the state’s redistricting effort, redistributing districts in a way that helps re-level the playing field for Michigan voters. [Since the 2010 Census, new district boundaries were drawn by GOP mapmakers and gerrymandered to give Republicans four additional seats in the House and one additional seat in the Senate.]
Decline to sign…right away, anyway. “Voters should never sign an initiative that has announced its intentions to stay off the ballot,” BenDor said. Like, for example, Let MI Kids Learn. After Gov. Whitmer vetoed the campaign’s legislation in 2021 (remember, the Let MI Kids Learn proposal was originally two Senate bills before becoming a citizen initiative), the group announced it would push the issue past voters and to the Legislature for a vote.
Here are some other tips from the Michigan Daily’s voter guide:
- Research petitions before signing them.
- Ask to read the summary and petition in full before signing – don’t take the petitioner’s word for it. The full text of the petition will be on the back and in the pages just behind the signature pages.
- Check the bottom-left corner of the page to see which organization is behind the petition.
Oftentimes, activists tell voters to call their elected officials to let them know how they feel about an issue. This year, BenDor said, it may be difficult to influence Republican lawmakers to vote against their majority-party during an indirect process.
“Those people are not going to be open to pressure from their constituents,” she said. “This is all about power.”
PART 5: THE PARTING THOUGHT
This section of the series is an opinion, written by Managing Editor Lisa Hayes, whose views do not necessarily reflect those of The ‘Gander Newsroom.
When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education in 2017, she had so little support that Vice President Mike Pence’s vote was needed to break the 50-50 tie. That fact is particularly relevant considering her family had donated to 23 of the senators voting on her nomination. Twenty-three.
If you’ve read DeVos’s frequently referenced 1997 op-ed in “Roll Call” newspaper, you probably have a hard time separating that number from her words:
“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party. Occasionally a wayward reporter will try to make the charge that we are giving this money to get something in return, or that we must be purchasing influence in some way…. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.
“We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.”
Over the past three decades, DeVos has been a key donor or leader in a long list of organizations with missions centered on instilling religion in education, and privatizing education under the misleading banner of “school choice.” Read together, their names sound like a Boggle game of the same words, rearranged in different variations: the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Education Freedom Fund, Children First America, All Children Matter, the Alliance for School Choice, the American Federation for Children, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the American Education Reform Council. Others on her donor roll include the Great Lakes Education Project, the Grand Rapids Christian School Association, Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc., Potter’s House school, the “nonprofit education news site” The 74 Media, the Ada Christian School Society, the Rehoboth Christian School Association, Christian Schools International, and GREAAT Schools, Inc.
We get it. Betsy DeVos has an agenda, and it’s particularly focused on Michigan—where the billionaire and her family live, alongside the rest of us.
But here in Michigan, voters reject programs like Let MI Kids Learn. In 2000, Kids First! Yes!, the group behind “Proposal 1″—an initiated constitutional amendment seeking to lift Michigan’s ban on funding for students attending non-public schools, and to allow students to use tuition vouchers to attend non-public schools—spent $14 million to push the campaign. Funding came largely from the DeVos family, the Catholic Church, and Wal-Mart heir John Walton. But clear, inexpensive voter education efforts helped Michigan citizens have their say at the polls. Overwhelmingly, voters turned down “Proposal 1.”
In 2021, Let MI Kids Learn’s two bills, introduced by Republican senators, passed the GOP-majority state Senate and House but were vetoed by Gov. Whitmer.
“Simply put, our schools cannot provide the high-quality education our kids deserve if we turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy,” Whitmer said in her veto letter.
At the kick-off event for the Let MI Kids Learn’s citizen initiative in February, DeVos—who made at least $225 million during her time in the Trump administration—indicated that the veto wasn’t slowing her down. “I’m more fired up now than ever. … It’s hard to believe anyone would oppose this opportunity,” she said, as reported by Michigan Advance.
For this series, the ‘Gander’s staff read through stacks of reports, analyses, studies, and expert opinions. What they concluded is that there’s no shortage of evidence on the harm this program would have on Michigan’s public schools. The question we’re left with is: Why?
DeVos and Let MI Kids Learn have spent millions on efforts to gather just 340,047 signatures.
Poll after poll shows that Michigan voters don’t want voucher programs.
And yet this latest voucher package and tax-credit incentive continues to march its way toward the friendly arms of a Republican-majority state Legislature and their indirect initiative power. Why?
There is something in it for someone. Follow the supporters. Follow the donors. Follow the legislators. Even if the proposal doesn’t end up on the ballot, they will.