School choice advocates in Michigan are tapping into the discontent parents and families have felt during the pandemic and seeking to turn that into more educational freedom. A new ballot proposal could help overcome some long-standing barriers to choice.

Extended school closures, masking decisions and curriculum debates have left parents on edge, forcing them to take a hard look at public schools in their neighborhoods.

In many cases, families are not well served.

The Let MI Kids Learn petition campaign, which officially launched on Wednesday, would create a scholarship program for eligible students that puts parents in control of how and where their children go to school. The scholarships are intended for the children who need it the most.

Betsy DeVos, former U.S. Secretary of Education and Michigan’s biggest supporter of school choice, led a virtual discussion with parents and other stakeholders at the kickoff. She is also a financial supporter of the petition.

“I’m more excited than ever” said DeVos.

The scholarships would be funded by private donations to granting agencies, and those who gave would receive a tax credit. The program would be capped at $500 million in annual contributions.

The petitions committee formed in response to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto last fall on near-accurate bills that Republicans sped through the Legislature.

The scholarship program is similar to the college savings account model that many states have adopted in response to the impact of COVID on schools. About two dozen states have expanded or created new private school choice programs in the past two years.

Parents who qualify for a scholarship have wide latitude in how they spend it, including private or public school tuition, e-learning programs, tutoring, textbooks, transportation, dual enrollment, childcare, or vocational and technical programs.

This will surely be of interest to many families, who have experienced such significant learning disruptions during COVID.

As DeVos said at the event, it’s hard to see how anyone could argue against a program designed to help children and families in this way.

But Whitmer is, as she made clear with her veto. The same goes for teachers’ unions, which also wield great political influence.

This is why the petition campaign is necessary. If the campaign gets enough signatures (more than 340,000 are needed), the measure will go back to the Legislative Assembly where they can approve it without fear of Whitmer’s veto.

Another potential obstacle is the state constitution and its notorious Blaine Amendment blocking all state funding for nonpublic schools. Proponents say the scholarships are designed in such a way that they can comply with the constitution, but critics say they would not.

A legal challenge in federal court seeks to overturn this amendment, which could completely open the door to the scholarship program and others like it.

As we learned during the pandemic, too many families were underserved by their public schools. This would help provide children with the tutoring and other services they need to catch up.

— Detroit News



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