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Michigan Legislature OKs accounts for private school tuition

chalk and chalkboard in an education classroom
Public domain image via Wikimedia

Students attending private schools could get up to $7,830 this year, or 90% of the state’s minimum base per-pupil funding.

Children could qualify for scholarships to attend private schools and to cover educational expenses such as tutoring under bills approved Tuesday on party-line votes in the Republican-led Michigan Legislature.

The fast-tracked legislation, introduced less than a week ago, would let individual and corporate taxpayers claim a 100% credit against their income taxes for donations to nonprofit organizations, which would send money to eligible students’ accounts. It is likely to be vetoed if it reaches Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“Very simply, these bills are voucher schemes that have been shamelessly introduced during a pandemic, that would send Michigan taxpayer dollars mainly to private and religious schools while giving generous tax benefits to wealthy donors,” said Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Livonia Democrat who called the legislation unconstitutional. Others said it would siphon funding from public schools.

Supporters, including groups tied to school-choice proponent Betsy DeVos, said the bills would boost educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids and give parents additional choices.

“Parents should be entitled to make the best determination for their children based on the unique needs that they have,” said Sen. Tom Barrett, a Charlotte Republican, the sponsor of one measure.

Another sponsor, Republican Sen. Lana Theis of Brighton, said it is time to “rethink education” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need bold, creative solutions to get parents more involved and students back on the path of educational success,” she said.

K-12 students would be eligible if their family income is no more than double the cutoff to receive free or reduced-priced lunch — $98,050 for a family of four — they have a disability or they are in foster care.

Students attending private schools could get up to $7,830 this year, or 90% of the state’s minimum base per-pupil funding. Those in households with incomes at 100% to 200% of the free and reduced lunch program threshold would receive less on a sliding scale.

Children enrolled in public schools could get a maximum of $500, or $1,100 if they are disabled.

The scholarships could pay for school-related expenses: tuition, fees, tutoring, computers, software, instructional materials, summer school, transportation costs, athletic fees, educational therapies and school uniforms. State tax revenue would be cut by as much as $500 million in the first year, and public schools would see a drop in funding depending on how many kids switch to private school because of the scholarships.

The Michigan Constitution says “no public monies or property” can be used to “aid or maintain” private schools. It is considered to be the nation’s strictest constitutional ban on providing public assistance to nonpublic schools.

Abby Mitch, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, said the tax credits are “not public funds. It is ostensibly private funds being reallocated through the state to parents.” But critics, including Michigan’s largest teachers union, said the proposed program is clearly illegal under a 1970 voter-approved constitutional amendment.

“The courts have reaffirmed this language over and over and over again. Our public school students have won every single time,” said Rep. Darrin Camilleri, a Trenton Democrat.

The bills were approved 20-16 and 55-48 in the Senate and House. Final votes cannot occur until next week.