DeVos-backed education ballot initiative to miss Wednesday signature deadline

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A ballot initiative creating a tax-incentivized scholarship program that could be used for private school tuition plans to continue collecting signatures in the coming weeks, missing a Wednesday deadline that would have guaranteed review of signatures ahead of the November election.

The Let MI Kids Learn ballot committee said it would continue collecting signatures over the next few weeks to ensure the total collected could stand up to expected challenges, but the group maintained it had met the minimum of 340,047 signatures. 

"But we also know the well-funded special interest groups and school unions that oppose these scholarships will conduct a no-holds-barred effort to stop them from becoming law," said Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the group.

"It’s sad that some will put their self-interest over the needs of children, but we won’t let them win."

Opposition group For MI Kids, For Our Schools argued Wednesday that a lack of support for the proposal was driving organizers to circumvent the November ballot in favor of later passage by the GOP-led Legislature.

"They’ll continue to try to force their latest anti-public education voucher scheme on the people of Michigan, and we will continue to fight it, alongside the majority of Michiganders," said Lonnie Scott, executive director of liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan and a spokesman for For MI Kids, For Our Schools. 

Former Eduction Secretary Betsy DeVos with former Vice President Mike Pence in Rochester Hills, Michigan, on May 17, 2022.

The delayed submission of signatures puts the ballot initiative at somewhat of a disadvantage compared with other ballot initiatives planning to submit their signatures to the Bureau of Election by the Wednesday deadline. 

Submission of signatures by Wednesday requires the Bureau of Elections to review the signatures ahead of the November election, so that the measure may be placed on the November ballot. 

Initiative petitions seeking passage by the Republican-led Legislature — such as the Let MI Kids Learn proposal — don't have to meet the same November deadline. But it's likely the review of those signatures would come second to other statutory duties the bureau has in relation to the upcoming August primary and November general elections, potentially resulting in a months-long delay of any sort of signature review.

Wszolek, who worked on last year's Unlock Michigan ballot initiative, argued that the bureau's delayed review of the signatures for that measure was due to COVID, and that no such delay should exist in this case. 

"There's no legitimate reason that work can't be completed this year," he said. "We've been extremely impressed with the professionalism of the staff at the Bureau of Elections and have been treated fairly every step of the way. We have no reason to believe that will change at all."

The ballot initiative backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos received support from former Vice President Mike Pence, who visited Michigan as recently as last month to boost signatures for the initiative. 

The program would create the Student Opportunity Scholarship Act and give income tax breaks to individuals who donated to the program. The scholarship program would allow certain low-income students or students with disabilities to access the fund for scholarships to be used on tuition for public or non-public learning programs, electronics, uniforms, standardized test fees, alternative or extracurricular learning program, transportation or sports fees. 

The tax credit created as part of the program would allow taxpayers to claim credits for contributions for a total of up to $500 million in tax credits a year. 

Proponents of the plan have touted it as a way to give parents more power over their children's schooling, particularly in the wake of frustration over pandemic policies that closed or restricted school operations. 

“We’re interested in achieving transformational change to Michigan’s education system and putting the needs of students and families first," Wszolek said in a statement. "We’re going to be patient in achieving our goals because the stakes for our children are so high."

Opponents have said the plan amounted to a voucher scheme boosted unsuccessfully by DeVos in the past and argued that would it would run afoul of Michigan's so-called Blaine Amendment, which bars public funds from going to private schools. 

The state's ban on public funding for private schools has been challenged in various forms in the courts but has so far been upheld.

The two initiatives that make up the Let MI Kids Learn plan were among several proposed initiated statutes whose 340,047 signatures are due Wednesday. 

In addition to Let MI Kids Learn, other initiatives that seek to curb public health orders, set up a forensic election audit process and decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms also fell short of the signatures required by Wednesday. 

The Michigan Initiative for Community Healing, the psychedelic mushroom legalization initiative, hopes to submit signatures later in the summer for placement on the 2024 ballot. 

Unlock MI II, the public health law change, and Audit MI have abandoned their initiative campaigns.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com