During the four years while she served as U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was unable to convince Congress to appropriate any funding for her favorite Education Freedom Scholarships—a tuition tax credit school voucher plan she proposed in four successive U.S. Department of Education budgets.
But DeVos, the founder of the American Federation for Children and a supporter with her wealthy family of a number of other far-right pro-voucher advocacy organizations, has not given up her long commitment to expanding publicly funded, private school voucher programs across the state legislatures.
Bridge Magazine‘s Jonathan Oosting reports that DeVos recently appeared at a press conference launching a Michigan ballot initiative for a new tuition tax credit voucher program: “Two decades after leading a failed attempt to create a school voucher system in Michigan, former U.S. Dept. of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is backing a new plan to create a voucher-like student scholarship program that critics contend will undermine public education. DeVos on Wednesday helped launch the Let MI Kids Learn petition drive, which seeks to create state tax credits for individual or corporate donations to scholarship funds that would help qualifying Michigan families pay for private school tuition or other educational expenses, including home-school curriculum materials. ‘This is a chance for parents to take control of education in Michigan, in our state,’ DeVos said during an online launch event with a handful of parents.”
For Michigan Advance, Liana G. Stebbins reports that DeVos and her family are supporting the initiative with money as well as their advocacy: “The DeVos family already had given the measure $350,000, plus $25,000 from the DeVos-backed Great Lakes Education Project.”
The new project is designed, according to Oosting, to get around Michigan’s constitutional ban on public funding for private schools: “The Michigan Constitution explicitly prohibits spending public funds on private schools, including any tax benefit or credit. But the Let Mi Kids Learn initiative proposes an indirect funding mechanism that supporters contend will survive potential legal challenges. Instead of sending state funding directly to private schools, the proposed initiative would provide tax credits to donors who contribute to newly created ‘scholarship granting organizations’ that could then pay for student tuition at parochial or other non-public schools… Michigan’s prohibition against public funding for private schools is considered among the strictest of its kind in the nation, but DeVos and other school choice advocates have been working to weaken or overturn the provision for decades. In 2000, DeVos spearheaded a statewide ballot proposal to amend the state constitution and create a voucher system…. The voucher proposal was rejected by more than 69 percent of voters.”
Oosting reports that the proposal would also avoid the threat of a veto by Governor Whitmer, who vetoed a similar proposal when it was passed into law by the state legislature in November: “If organizers collect 340,047 valid signatures within 180 days for their two related petitions, as required to advance any initiative, Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature could adopt both and enact them into law without a signature from Whitmer or a statewide vote of the people. Michigan is one of two states that allow legislators to bypass the governor and adopt measures that collect enough signatures to make it to the ballot.”
Oosting reports on protests by Michigan’s public school supporters who warn that the expansion of publicly funded vouchers would undermine the state’s capacity to fund its public schools: “Nearly a quarter of Michigan’s personal income-tax collections are earmarked for public education. Public schools could also lose per-pupil funding if students leave for private schools… The proposal would limit the education scholarships to children in households that earn up to 200 percent of the threshold to qualify for free or reduced price school lunches or children with disabilities. Under current rules, a student from a family of four would qualify if their pre-tax household income was $98,050.”
DeVos’s political activity since the end of her term as President Donald Trump’s education secretary has not been limited to her home state of Michigan. DeVos and the organization she founded decades ago, the American Federation for Children, are the subject of a column by Ruth Conniff in the Wisconsin Examiner: “The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit watchdog group that tracks money in politics, named the American Federation for Children (AFC) its ‘influence peddler of the month’ for February. The federation is headquartered in Washington, DC, but has spent millions of dollars on Wisconsin elections. Founded by rightwing Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos… it is among the top 10 special interest group spenders in Wisconsin…. In 2020, the group spent $600,000 on nine legislative races… Late last week, one recipient of AFC support, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) announced a package of bills that aim to dissolve the Milwaukee Public School District by 2024, replacing it with four to eight smaller districts, and expand private-school vouchers to every student, regardless of family income.”
The Wisconsin Education Association Council summarizes the bills that are part of the package: “The package announced by Senate Education Committee chairwoman Alberta Darling and Republican colleagues would overhaul K-12 education in Wisconsin by breaking up the state’s largest school district within two years and expanding taxpayer-funded private school vouchers to every student, regardless of family income. The Republican plan would also increase public funding for privately run charter schools and allow parents to sue districts if items in a ‘parents’ bill of rights’ were violated.”
Conniff adds that Wisconsin vouchers served 511 students in the 2013-14 school year, but by 2020-21, the number of voucher students in Wisconsin had grown to 12,111: “The costs of that program also grew, from just over $3 million in 2013-14 to $76 million in 2020-21. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign crunched the state data to report that state spending on Wisconsin’s three voucher programs—in Milwaukee and Racine, and for the statewide program—came to more than $2.6 billion between 2011 and 2021… Public school advocates object that the state cannot afford two separate school systems, one public and one private, and that vouchers are putting a strain on local public schools, moving per-pupil spending out of the public school districts where the students reside.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Molly Beck quotes Wisconsin’s elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jill Underly condemning the package of bills Alberta Darling is introducing: “(T)hese proposals are a polarizing and disingenuous distraction from the real needs of students, families, and educators, and they do nothing to help our schools, which have suffered greatly during this pandemic. They do nothing to help public schools and instead will cause great harm.”