Ex-Vice President Mike Pence: Let families 'take control of education' in Michigan

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Rochester Hills — Former Vice President Mike Pence returned to Michigan Tuesday, saying he wanted to encourage families to "take control of education" in the state by supporting a proposed scholarship and tax credit program that could help send students to private schools.

Pence, appearing with former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, spoke at a rally inside Lutheran Northwest, a high school in Rochester Hills, participated in a policy discussion and took questions from the media.

The focus of Pence and DeVos, two prominent Republican figures nationally, was backing an ongoing petition effort to create tax breaks and a scholarship program that families could use to pay for tutoring and potentially sending children to private religious schools.

"With leadership in Lansing, Michigan, we can let every family in Michigan choose where their children go to school, public, private, parochial, Christian or home school," Pence said at one point Tuesday. "And it's an idea whose time has come."

Former Vice President Mike Pence greets students at Lutheran Northwest after an assembly about a school of choice tax credit initiative.

Their arguments in favor of the proposal often touched on lingering frustration among some parents about how schools operated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents, DeVos and Pence contended, should have more control over decisions influencing their children's education.

"I think this is all about the issue of who decides," Pence said.

The Let MI Kids Learn campaign, which launched in November, focuses on 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 for families across the state.

The program would be capped at $500 million in contributions each year. 

The campaign's detractors say the idea is to set up a "voucher scheme" in Michigan and divert tax money to private schools. Meanwhile, the state Constitution currently bars tax benefits from going to private schools.

"We believe in providing a quality education to every kid, no matter who they are or where they live — and we know the best way to do that is by fully and equitably funding our public schools," said Lonnie Scott, spokesman for the group For MI Kids, For Our Future. "We will not stand by and allow the DeVos family to defund public education in our state, and we remain committed to opposing the Let MI Kids Learn initiative."

A petition campaign needs to gather 340,047 valid signatures to send a proposal to the GOP-led Legislature for adoption. The approach would avoid a veto from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because she would have no say.

Pence, previously the governor of Indiana, was former President Donald Trump's running mate in 2016 and 2020. During both campaigns, Pence often visited Michigan, a key battleground state that Trump won in 2016 but lost in 2020.

Tuesday's stop in Michigan was Pence's first public appearance here since the eve of the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election. Many Republicans contend Pence is considering running for president himself in 2024.

He didn't speak about his political ambitions on Tuesday, instead focusing on the Let MI Kids Learn proposals.

Pence and DeVos pushed back on the ideas that parents already have choices about where their children go to school and that their plan could violate the state Constitution.

"There are many families across Detroit and many families across Michigan who have no choice," Pence told reporters. "They don't have the economic means to either move into a school district where the schools are better, safer or more effective, or they simply don't have the ability to leave the public school."

DeVos, a political donor and school choice advocate, said the scholarship program would give parents flexibility.

"The education savings accounts go to families," DeVos said. "The families make those choices and those decisions. They don't go to religious schools ... only if the families choose that."

Former Vice President Mike Pence addresses Lutheran Northwest students about a school of choice tax credit initiative.

Pence spoke to a crowd of about 500 inside a gymnasium at the Lutheran high school on Tuesday afternoon. His address lasted about 10 minutes before he took pictures with attendees.

Pence said it was "government's fault" that some students were "trapped in failing schools" and others were facing "political indoctrination."

"It's a lack of leadership," Pence said. "But it doesn't have to be this way."

According to the Let MI Kids Learn campaign, more than 1 million Michigan public school students could qualify for the proposed scholarship program, including special needs students, those eligible for free and reduced lunch and those at or below 200% of the free and reduced lunch eligibility threshold.

Traditional public school students could receive $500 in aid. Those who wish to use the program to attend private schools could get 90% of the per-pupil funding allotment that goes to public schools through the state, which will likely be more than $7,000.