Whitmer vetoes education scholarship bills she likens to vouchers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed two bills that would create an education scholarship program that would give contributors a tax break on donations that could be used for a variety of education services, including private school tuition. 

Whitmer promised the veto when the bills passed through the Legislature last month and axed the bills Friday. In the past, she compared the effort to unsuccessful voucher programs championed by school choice advocates, including west Michigan's influential DeVos family. 

Anticipating the veto, advocates earlier this week launched a petition initiative to put the program into statute by collecting signatures and sending it to the GOP-led Legislature. 

Whitmer said Friday the state couldn't afford to divert public tax money to private schools via tax credits for donors. 

"Simply put, our schools cannot provide the high-quality education our kids deserve if we turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy," the governor said.

"The movement to privatize education in this state has been a catastrophic failure, causing Michigan students to fall behind the rest of the nation." 

School choice advocate group Great Lakes Education Project criticized the veto, which the group said would take away money disadvantaged students could have used for tutoring, mental health help, textbooks and reading supports. 

“Every student from every background, in every community deserves the tools and the resources they need for a successful education," said Beth DeShone, executive director for the group. "Parents asked Whitmer to help their children. The governor ignored parents and slashed education funding for more than one million Michigan students.”  

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy — which is suing the state over a ban preventing use of a separate scholarship program on private school costs — said the veto runs counter to the desires of parents who want "flexible spending options" for their children's education. 

“Many Michigan parents are crying out to be trusted as key partners and decision-makers in their children's education, to get them the help and opportunities they need,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. 

“It's extremely disappointing to see Gov. Whitmer wield her power to resist their pleas and instead placate the union officials and bureaucrats who don't want to share even a little control of education dollars.”

Opponents of the measure have said the Student Opportunity Scholarship program would violate the so-called Blaine Amendment, which bans public funding for private schools in Michigan's Constitution. 

The bill's sponsors have maintained the measure does not conflict with the state's ban on "tax benefits" being used as a type of state funding for private school education because it doesn't constitute direct state aid to private entities. 

Michigan's Blaine Amendment, approved by voters in 1970, prohibits public dollars from being used for nonpublic schools. Legal and petition initiative efforts seeking to undo the amendment in the decades since its passage have been unsuccessful, even those that received millions of dollars in support from the DeVos family.

Voters last rejected a proposed constitutional amendment initiative for school vouchers in 2000. 

Under the legislation, individuals could contribute money toward scholarship-granting organizations under the Student Opportunity Scholarship program for which they would receive a tax credit. The program would be capped at $500 million in 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.

Separate from the ballot initiative effort announced Monday, the Midland-based Mackinac Center filed a lawsuit in September against the state over prohibitions on the use of the tax-incentivized Michigan Education Savings Plan for nonpublic school tuition. 

The suit asks the court to declare Michigan's Blaine Amendment unconstitutional and stop the state from demanding a tax cut refund from people who use their education savings for private K-12 education.