by Félix Pérez
It’s long been well established that there’s little if any separation between Michigan gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and his benefactor, native Michigander Betsy DeVos, when it comes to diverting public funds to private and religious schools. So when Schuette, the state’s attorney general, announced last month that he would appeal a judicial ruling that invalidated two state laws that reimburse private schools for the cost of state health and safety requirements, it came as no surprise.
A Court of Claims judge last month struck as unconstitutional two budget laws, saying $5 million in spending violates a ban on aid to non-public schools. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the laws, which include the Michigan Association of School Administrators, Michigan Association of School Boards and Michigan Parents for Schools, sued the state in March 2017, arguing that the laws served as a “gateway” to school vouchers. The ruling invalidated state reimbursements to private schools for the cost of fire drills, inspections and other state requirements.
“The public has overwhelmingly rejected the use of public dollars for private schools,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, at the time the suit was filed. Wigent was referencing a 2000 ballot proposal that would have created a statewide private school voucher program. Nearly 70 percent of voters rejected the ballot measure, which was widely promoted by DeVos.
The reimbursements are a “backdoor voucher and will allow for other, more questionable use of public funds in the future,” Wigent said.
The Michigan Constitution bans any direct or indirect “payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies” to non-public schools.
Schuette’s likely opponent for governor, Gretchen Whitmer, the daughter and granddaughter of educators, fought efforts to divert money from the School Aid Fund. As Democratic leader in the state Senate, she voted against a law overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court that took 3 percent out of educators’ paychecks — for a total of $550 million — to fund retiree health care. The law was challenged in court by the Michigan Education Association.
Schuette defended the educator paycheck-takings law in court for six years. Now that he is running for governor, he claims to have supported educators having their money returned.
Schuette has benefitted from the generosity of DeVos and her family’s organizations, to the tune of nearly $123,000 since 2010, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Schuette, not surprisingly, is one of DeVos’s staunchest defenders. After a 60 Minutes interview in March in which DeVos displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about public education, Schuette tweeted, “Betsy DeVos is a smart and gifted leader in education. . . Great Secy (sic) of Education.”
If Schuette is a fan of DeVos, Whitmer is anything but. “Education shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but Republicans in Lansing have consistently sided with Betsy DeVos to push an education agenda that includes slashing school funding, expanding unaccountable for-profit managed charter schools, over-emphasizing standardized tests, attacking hard-working educators and adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to education.” In her recently released education plan, Whitmer laid out a blueprint that counters DeVos’s agenda and prioritizes students and educators.
Like DeVos, Schuette is a strong supporter of charter schools and school vouchers. According to VoteSmart, an independent voter website, Schuette supports providing “parents with state-funded vouchers to send their children to any participating school (public, private, religious).”
The Michigan primary is August 7. Whitmer and Schuette are expected to win the nod for their respective parties and face off in November.