Republicans pass voucher-style education bills that opponents say are unconstitutional

By: - October 20, 2021 12:21 pm

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The Republican-led state Senate and House passed bills Tuesday that would give tax credits to Michiganders who contribute to a scholarship program for nonpublic schools, which Democrats are blasting as an unconstitutional voucher program. 

“We know that these bills are unconstitutional, and we know that mechanisms for private donors to support public schools already exist. So the question is, why are these bills coming forward? It is an obvious political ploy from Betsy DeVos and her legislative allies,” said state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.), minority vice chair of the House Education Committee. “These bills are nothing more than a DeVos litmus test to funnel her enormous wealth to legislators who share her desire to privatize our public schools.”

DeVos, the former U.S. education secretary under then-President Donald Trump and a Michigan native, has been a longtime school choice champion and has pushed for voucher programs to reroute resources from public schools to private and religious schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

The bills that passed through the Senate are Senate Bill 687 and Senate Bill 688, both introduced by Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte). These bills create Michigan Opportunity Scholarship Accounts that can be used by families for education or learning expenses and tax credits for corporations to make tax-deductible contributions to private schools for student tuition. 

Similar bills made their way through the state House Tuesday, House Bills 5404 and 5405.

“Every student deserves a fair shot to succeed,” Barrett said. “I feel strongly that helping parents, who are primarily responsible for the education of their children, to gain access to the resources that will best benefit an individual child’s educational needs is vitally important to the future success of Michigan students.”

In 1970, voters passed the Blaine Amendment to the state Constitution, which prohibits public money from going to private schools. And opponents to these bills say they violate that constitutional amendment.

Opponents also argue that voucher programs contribute to the underfunding of the state’s public schools. 

“The fact is, these bills will lower Michigan’s tax revenue, which directly impacts our public schools. As a former school board member, I cannot, in good conscience, vote for anything that draws money away from schools, and I’m proud that my colleagues joined me in opposition,” said state Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac). “When we entered office, we swore an oath to uphold the state constitution, and this legislation is a clear violation of our state charter. If Republicans want to support children’s education, this is clearly not the way.”

Both sets of bills will still need to be approved by the other chamber. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is likely to veto these bills if they reach her desk.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.