Signature collectors for a Michigan ballot initiative backed by former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made misleading and incorrect claims today while circulating petitions in Detroit.
The initiative to create tax-advantaged scholarships for private schools presents high stakes for all Michigan residents because it could cost the state and schools millions of dollars in revenue.
“If a student is struggling or needs to meet income requirements, they will receive a $500 scholarship,” is how a signature collector introduced the initiative. “If the student suffers from any form of disability or has a disability, they will receive $1,100.”
Asked by a reporter about the purpose of the scholarships, another signature collector said, “It’s for college.”
When asked why the petition mentioned “non-public schools,” a circulator explained, “It’s for charter schools,” noting that she attended a charter school in New York City.
In fact, the ballot initiative would create scholarships to cover private K-12 school tuition, not college. Charter schools, which are free and publicly funded, would not benefit. The money would go to schools attended by eligible students, not to the students themselves. The scholarships would be paid for by individual donors, who would receive tax relief for their contributions.
Circulators have repeatedly said the scholarships will be put to a vote, although they will likely be approved by the legislature without ever appearing on a ballot or be vetoed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
“I’m encouraged they’re not telling you something that’s completely untrue,” said Fred Wszolek, spokesperson for Let MI Kids Learn, a group circulating two petitions to create the scholarship and tax credit. “They just got some facts wrong.”
He said the campaign has contracted more than 900 signature collectors across the state, many of whom work for training contractors. He added: “Like any other employee, some follow the training better than others.”
Proponents of the initiative say it would help more families access private education.
Opponents say it would effectively transfer taxpayers’ money, including school funds, to private schools. Unlike public schools, private schools are not legally required to educate all children, which means they may refuse children with disabilities.
Michigan Legislature analysts estimate the tax credits would cost the state $500 million in revenue in the first year, including more than $40 million in revenue for schools.
This was not the first time that distributors of petitions for Let MI Kids Learn made misleading claims about the initiative to a reporter. In February, circulators Told a reporter from MLive that they were “collecting signatures to help children with special needs”.
It is not illegal in Michigan for signature collectors to make misleading statements about petitions.
“It’s really up to people to read the language of the petition to understand the language you’re actually signing,” said Casandra Ulbrich, chair of the Michigan Board of Education, which is part of a coalition opposing the initiative. stock market voting.
DeVos and his family members donated $350,000 to support Let MI Kids Learn. Other Republican-affiliated groups have added over $1.4 million.
The DeVos family led a decades-long campaign to shift public funds to private schools, beginning with a failed 2000 campaign to create a voucher system in Michigan that would have allowed students to spend taxpayer money on private school tuition fees. DeVos-affiliated groups are also backing a lawsuit to strike down Michigan’s constitutional ban on public funding of private schools.
Let MI Kids Learn paid $1.6 million to National Petition Solutions, a California-based company, to collect signatures, filings show. (Campaign finance records indicate a Michigan address for the company.)
NPS did not immediately return a request for comment.
Another signature collection company hired by NPS for an independent campaign trained its employees to mislead Michigan citizens while circulating petitions, the Detroit Free Press reported in 2020.
Signature-gatherers in Detroit on Wednesday had set up a table with handwritten signs outside an office of Michigan’s secretary of state. They were also circulating a petition titled Secure IM Votingwhich would toughen voter ID rules — and make it harder to vote, say opponents.
They presented this petition simply by saying that it would provide citizens with free identity cards.
The petition would eliminate fees for Michigan ID cards, which currently cost $10. However, the state already waive these fees for low-income residents receiving state assistance.
Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at [email protected].