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"Decline to sign" campaign kicks off to fight private school scholarship ballot initiative

Courtesy of MC4ME

A new coalition of public education supporters has launched a campaign to defeat the "Let MI Kids Learn" ballot petition drive backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The coalition is aiming at two petition initiatives that, in combination, would establish a scholarship program to help families pay for private education and offer a tax credit to individuals and companies that contribute to the program.

The coalition, For MI Kids, For Our Schools, includes 482 Forward, American Federation of Teachers Michigan, K-12 Alliance of Michigan, Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, Michigan Education Association, Michigan Education Justice Coalition, Michigan Parent Teacher Association, and the Middle Cities Education Association.

The coalition said the proposal would drain hundreds of millions of dollars away from Michigan public schools.

"This is about privatizing education," said Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education. "This is about taking public dollars and turning them over to private institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers."

"Private schools just simply don't have to accept a student who comes knocking at their door," said Arlyssa Heard, a parent of a child in special education in Detroit Schools. "However public schools do. They can't pick and choose who to educate."

The coalition is asking voters to decline to sign the ballot initiative. That's because if the petition campaign gathers 340,047 valid signatures of registered voters, the Republican-controlled Legislature could adopt the ballot initiative, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer could not veto it. If this happens, it would never reach the ballot for a statewide vote by the electorate.

Last year, Republicans in the Legislature did pass bills almost identical to the petition, and Governor Whitmer did veto them.

Supporters of the proposal say it promotes school choice.

Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Let Michigan Learn, disputed that the proposal will take money away from public schools. He said he anticipates many scholarships will go toward vocational training, tutoring, and homeschooling, as well as private school education

"I think every single parent after the last couple of years of seeing up close and personal how their kids are taught would say, 'No! Schools haven't improved in the last 20 years, and it's time to try something new,' " said Wszolek.

Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.