Michigan’s Republican-led legislature approved a number of bills last week that would create a school choice program. The bills will be combined into one that could be made law. But many fear it may face an uphill struggle.
Many types of school-choice programs are possible. One of the most common is the voucher program. This allows students to choose not to attend the public school they are assigned in their area and to use the public money to go to the school of choice. Michigan uses an alternative system known as Education Savings Accounts. It sounds similar to a Health Savings account. Parents receive a preloaded debit card with funds which can be used only for certain expenses. In this instance, it is for education.
The Michigan program allows children who are in foster care or have a disability to apply. The program allows participants to use the allotted funds, which vary depending on their qualification, towards enrollment at a private school. The money can be used for other supplies, such as Wi Fi, tutors after school, services or behavior therapy, or any other service that may help students with special needs.
The biggest advantage to this approach is that the parents are empowered to determine what will best benefit their child and receive more funds.
ESAs can also be used in other states such as Arizona and Florida to fund school-choice programmes. The oldest ESA in America is used by Arizona, which is popular among parents. However, unlike those programs which are funded through the state education agencies, Michigan’s would use individual donations to fund scholarships for qualified students. These donors can then claim the tax-deductible charity donations.
It is possible that the state law that funds the program has a shady effect on its funding. Michigan is just one of many states with Blaine Amendments in their constitutions. These amendments explicitly prohibit the government from funding religious schools using public money. The laws were named after James G. Blaine (a 19th century Republican congressman) who proposed them as amendments to the U.S. Constitution. However, they are facially neutral and rooted in antiCatholic bigotry which was rampant in the late 1800s. The Supreme Court rejected Montana’s Blaine Amendment last year. However, it permitted recipients to use public money to go to private schools, but did not allow for religious affiliations. Michigan law however, states that public funds cannot be used to finance. Any Private schools are open to all, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Michigan Democrats include Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Bobby Leddy Whitmer, Whitmer’s spokesperson said that the bill was a non-starter. He clarified that the bill “undermines” state constitution and allows for the “diversion of hundreds million of taxpayer dollars each to private institutions.” Additionally, Leddy stated that the “Michiganders have had enough of attempts to enforce a Betsy DeVos-style voucher system” on the state.
Others from Michigan have invoked vouchers as well and raised Betsy DeVos. She was the ex-secretary of education under Donald Trump and an advocate for school choice before becoming a politician. Her family has donated millions to this cause. However, Michigan’s plan is very different from a voucher system. Michigan beneficiaries would be restricted to public schools in the respective districts. The funds have a limit of $500 to $1,000 per student for each school year. Although this is helpful, it’s not enough to allow you to go private school.
Michigan Democrats are known to react erratically to legislation even remotely resembling school vouchers. In July, when Whitmer signed an education spending bill for 2022, she vetoed a single program from it that would have appropriated $155 million from $17 billion total, to fund $1,000 stipends for the parents of K–5 students who were not proficient in reading. Similar to the current proposal the program would have permitted the money for tutors, summer or after-school programs, and other educational material. And as with the current bill, it was opposed by groups—school boards, superintendents, and teachers unions—who likened it to a “voucher program.”
It is true, as some critics have claimed, that the current bill could represent a net loss to the state treasury—the program’s first year is capped at $500 million, so full funding would mean $500 million in state tax deductions—which, if amortized evenly, could mean a loss of funding to public schools. Michigan’s public schools spend an average $12,756 annually per student. Yet, the state ranks in the bottom third in America for schools.
Rather than absorb some of that excess funding into the already-bloated public school apparatus—where, experience shows, there is no guarantee it will be of any help to students—Michigan should take a chance on a radical concept: ceding some of the decision-making power over children to parents.