Lansing – The Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiative garnered more than 520,000 signatures at the Michigan Office of Elections Wednesday for the first of two separate petitions seeking to change state law to implement a scholarship program and make donations to the fund eligible for a tax credit.
The petition would establish a scholarship program for at-risk students to use on a variety of educational services, including private schools. Private donors who contributed to the scholarship program would be entitled to a tax credit.
The scheme was billed as a resurrection of past unsuccessful voucher proposals championed by former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But the voting committee said the scholarship program differed from vouchers because it would use private funds, not public funds.
“It’s not vouchers. It’s private dollars,” said Amy Hawkins, spokesperson for the group. “It’s going to improve educational experiences for children, and I think even for some teachers in schools. Hopefully it will take some of the burden off of what they’re facing.
Hawkins said the group hopes to get the second batch of signatures on the tax credit portion of the proposal to the Elections Office soon, but is reviewing the sheets with particular care in light of the widespread signature fraud that has leaked d other petitions this year.
In the coming months, the office will review the signatures to determine their validity and make a recommendation for or against certification to the Board of State Solicitors. The group needed to obtain 340,047 valid signatures.
If the council certifies the petition, the Republican-led Michigan Legislature plans to pass the changes to state law, rather than allowing the proposal to go to voters in 2024. The process allows supporters of the programs to avoid a veto from Governor Gretchen Whitmer. , who previously vetoed the measure when the legislature passed it.
Signature certification could be a long time coming, as the office sorts through signatures from four other initiatives submitted ahead of Let MI Kids Learn, including two massive collections of signatures for constitutional amendments.
Those in line ahead of Let MI Kids Learn are the abortion rights Reproductive Freedom for All initiative, the voting rights Promote the Vote 2022 proposal, the minimum wage increase proposal called Raise the Wage MI, and another initiative to tighten voting laws, Secure MI Vote.
“Our anticipation and goal is to push for a review before the end of the year,” Hawkins said. “That’s what a secretary of state is here for. And we know she has a lot to do, but she has a great team.”
A group formed to oppose the petition initiative, For MI Kids, For Our Schools, said the proposal “will ensure less funding for local public schools”.
“Our local schools are grappling with a shortage of educators and a lack of mental health resources for our children,” said Casandra Ulbrich, spokesperson for the group and chair of the State Board of Education.
“This voucher proposal will only make matters worse by taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of our local schools each year and giving the funding to private, for-profit schools that are not accountable to taxpayers. “
The tax credits, which are capped at $500 million a year, would mean much less would be available for the state’s general fund and school aid fund. Critics have argued that the measure could also push more students and funding to leave public schools for non-public institutions.
Rep. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, dismissed those complaints Wednesday.
“Right now, we’re in a position where wealthy parents can help their kids catch up” if they’ve experienced pandemic learning loss, Theis said. “At-risk students cannot. They have no opportunity to help their children through this process. And they have been the most affected.
“As far as schools go, if schools are successful, those kids aren’t going anywhere. You don’t take your kid away from success to go try and find something else.”
How the program would work
According to the wording of the petitions, individuals could donate money to organizations that provide scholarships under the student 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 should be from a household whose income is less than 200% of financial eligibility for free or reduced lunch, have some sort of disability, be in the foster care system, or have someone another in their household receiving funds through the Student Scholarship Program.
Money could be used for tuition or fees for public or non-public education or e-learning programs, tutoring, after-school programs, textbooks or teaching materials, computer equipment, uniforms , standardized test fees, summer school, after-school programs, or child care, double enrollment, transportation, athletic fees, or career or technical programs.
For a public school student, funding would be capped at $500. For a public school student with a disability, the cap would be $1,100.
For non-public school students, funding would be capped at 90% of the minimum base allocation spent for public school students, minus three-eighths of the percentage by which household income exceeds the free lunch eligibility criteria or reduced.
For a disabled student in a non-public school, the amount of scholarships would be capped at 90% of the minimum basic allowance regardless of household income. The base allocation for the upcoming school year is $9,150 per student.
Nonprofit organizations wishing to participate in the program would apply to the Michigan Department of Treasury for certification and renewal as a grant-giving organization. Non-profit organizations could keep no more than 10% of the scholarship funds for administrative expenses.