Panel OKs petitions creating student scholarships that opponents say amount to vouchers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

An effort to create a controversial education scholarship program giving contributors a tax break on donations could start collecting signatures in the next week or two after winning technical approvals Mondayfrom the Board of State Canvassers. 

The policy, which was vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer earlier this month, would allow those tax-exempt contributions to be used for a variety of education services, including private school tuition. 

The provisions allowing the money to be spent on private education costs have run afoul of public school advocates, who have compared the effort to a voucher program and say the measure violates the state's so-called Blaine Amendment. The Blaine Amendment prevents public money — including in the form of tax credits — from being used on private education. 

“This most recent unconstitutional scheme would siphon at least half a billion dollars of public revenue each year to private schools — funds desperately needed to meet the needs of every public school student," said Casandra Ulbrich, of the opposition group Protecting the Promise of Public Education.

Julie Matuzak, a member of the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, participates in a meeting of the board in Lansing on Nov. 23, 2020. An effort to create a controversial education scholarship program giving contributors a tax break on donations could start collecting signatures in the next week or two after winning technical approvals from the Board of State Canvassers Monday.

But Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Let MI Kids Learn ballot committee, said the petition goes "far beyond" the "four walls a kid is in." He noted it also will make available money for tutoring, computer equipment or internet access.

"There’s a huge pent-up demand for tackling this problem of lost learning over the last 18 months," Wszolek said.

The Board of State Canvassers on Monday approved the summary and form of the two petition initiatives related to the scholarship program, according to the Department of State. One of the petitions would create the Student Opportunity Scholarship program and one would amend the state income tax act to allow for tax credits related to contributions to the scholarship program. 

The board's Monday action marked the approvals of the fifth and sixth petition initiatives that will enter circulation this year among Michigan voters. Other initiatives collecting or about to begin collecting signatures include ones that would enter Michigan into a multi-state compact seeking a National Popular Vote, repeal the Truth in Sentencing law, impose stricter voting rules and place limits on local public health orders

Under the scholarship proposal, individuals could contribute money toward scholarship-granting organizations through the Student Opportunity Scholarship program and receive a tax credit for the contribution. The program would be capped at $500 million in tax-incentivized contributions each year. 

To receive a scholarship from the fund, a student would have to be in a household with an income under 200% of the financial eligibility for free or reduced lunch, have some sort of disability, be in the foster care system or have someone else in their household receiving funds through the Student Opportunity Scholarship program. 

The money could be used on tuition or fees for public or nonpublic education or online learning programs, tutoring, extracurricular programs, textbooks or instructional materials, computer hardware, uniforms, standardized test fees, summer school, after-school programs or child care, dual enrollment, transportation, sports fees or career or technical programs.

The tax credits would mean up to $500 million a year less in the state general fund and some losses from the school aid fund, as well as the possibility that more students and funding leave public schools for nonpublic institutions.

Also at Monday's meeting, the board deadlocked on new petition forms submitted to it by ballot committees Secure MI Vote and Unlock Michigan II, according to the Department of State, highlighting an ongoing legal saga over a 2018 law governing petitions. 

A Michigan Court of Appeals panel in late October struck down parts of a 2018 law that changed the signature requirements for petitions, but reinstated a requirement that petition forms include a checkbox that paid circulators would have to mark to notify signers that they are not volunteers. 

The ruling, which has been appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, left it unclear whether petitions approved before the Oct. 29 decision would have to add a checkbox to their petitions or keep them as is.

The Board of State Canvassers voted on Nov. 15 to submit an amicus brief in the case urging the Michigan Supreme Court to consider any court rulings regarding the petition law to be considered prospective. The board, according to its Nov. 15 resolution, plans to "accept petition signatures for canvassing if the petition sheets comply with the instructions that were in effect at the time of circulation or at the time the petitions were approved as to form by this board." 

When Secure MI Vote and Unlock Michigan II on Monday asked the board to approve new petitions as to form that included the checkbox, Democratic members Julie Matuzak and Jeannette Bradshaw voted against it to stay in line with the board's Nov. 15 position.

"My argument was that we stated our position very clearly and approving a petition with the box would undermine our position with the court," Matuzak said after the meeting. "... This was a case where we genuinely disagreed about how to proceed.”