'Decline to sign' campaign launches against private school scholarship plan

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A coalition of public education advocates in Michigan launched a "decline to sign" campaign Wednesday, hoping to foil a petition effort to establish tax breaks and a scholarship program that could help students attend private schools.

The new coalition, For MI Kids, For Our Schools, features the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators and the Michigan Education Association.

The groups are targeting petition initiatives from Let MI Kids Learn, which has been backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and members of her family. The campaign is focused on a series of two petitions that would change Michigan tax law to allow donors to get tax credits on money given to a scholarship fund that could then be used for educational expenses, including tuition or fees for public or nonpublic schools.

The proposed program is not about providing scholarships but setting up a voucher system in Michigan, said Andrew Brodie, superintendent of Flat Rock Community Schools.

"This will take critical funding directly from our students’ classes and the public schools that serve them across the state," said Brodie, president of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators.

"Public money should be used to support public schools," he added.

The proposal would allow donors to contribute money through 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. 

"This is a chance for parents to take control of education in Michigan, in our state," DeVos said last month. "This is a chance to help students in every corner of Michigan access the very best education options for them.”

Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Let MI Kids Learn, disagreed with the argument the proposal would shift money directly from public schools to private schools. Wszolek said he expects many scholarships would go to homeschooling, tutoring and vocational education.

If the petition campaign gathers 340,047 valid signatures, the proposal can go to the GOP-led Legislature for adoption instead of allowing voters to weigh in during the November 2022 election. This approach would avoid a veto from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Democrat Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education, participated in a press conference launching the opposition campaign Wednesday.

Casandra Ulbrich

Ulbrich described the proposal as an attempt to defund neighborhood schools in favor of a "voucher scheme."

"DeVos is counting on the Legislature bypassing traditional legislative checks and balances and denying the voters the right to even weigh in on these proposals," Ulbrich said. "And that is why we are here today. We are asking voters to decline to sign these petitions."

The deadline to file petitions signatures is June 1.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.