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GOP-backed bill packages that would create education expense scholarships

Lansing in fall- Michigan State Capitol
Jake Neher
/
Michigan Public Radio Network

Both the Michigan House and Senate have passed their own version of a bill package that would create so-called “Student Opportunity Scholarships.”

The bills would allow eligible families to use tax credit-driven scholarships to pay for education-related expenses—like private school tuition or standardized testing fees.

State Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) is defending the package from critics who say it would take funds from public schools.

“Instead, it would be every dollar that would go into these scholarship granting organizations would be directly invested into the education of a child. So we are going to actually enhance further the investment into education,” Barrett said.

Critics, however, are characterizing the bills as violating the state constitution.

“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,” state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) said.

The Michigan state constitution prohibits using public money to pay for education in private schools.

Backers like state Rep. Bryan Posthumus (R-Kent County) say the package was designed with that in mind.

“The way that we set this up is that we have scholarship-granting organizations that receive private dollars, private donations, private contributions and then the scholarship-granting organization then creates scholarships and gives out scholarships for families to use,” Posthumus said.

In return for those contributions, however, donors would receive tax credits.

Fiscal analysis of both packages suggests they could have a drastic impact on State General Fund revenue within their first few years if they become law.

Sen. Barrett says the large amount of unspent state revenue left after the budget-making process means Michigan can afford to set up the program.

“We are not in a position in the state today where we are facing financial calamity where we somehow can’t allow private individuals and private taxpayers to invest in educational opportunities for children in our state,” Barrett said.

Democrats are decrying the bills as an affront to public education. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is almost sure to veto the packages should they reach her desk.

“There really is no working around this. Some representatives have tried to claim otherwise but the courts have reaffirmed time and time again that our constitution is super clear. We do not support vouchers. We do not support money going to private and religious schools,” state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton) said.

Republicans, however, are selling it as a way of giving parents more options. During committee hearings on the bills Tuesday morning before they went to their respected chambers for a vote, speakers gave testimony to their struggles finding an in-person schooling option during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are giving parents more choice in educating their kids and shrinking the government? Sounds like a win-win to me,” Posthumus said.

State Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) used to lead the Pontiac school district board of education and the Michigan Association of School Boards. She challenges the premise that students would receive better education away from public schools.

“When the children, especially from our school systems, challenged school systems, go into…these privately-owned schools, they’re not going to get the same type of attention that they need,” Carter said.

The Senate bills passed that chamber on 20-16 votes. The House counterparts passed their chamber on a 55-48 margin.