Last week, Michigan's Republican-led state legislature passed a series of bills that would establish a new school choice program in the state. They intend to consolidate the bills into one which could be signed into law, though many already fear that it faces an uphill battle.
School choice programs can take many forms. The most straightforward are voucher programs, in which students are allowed to opt out of the assigned public school in their geographical district, and use those public funds to enroll in the school of their choice, be it public, private, or parochial. Michigan's legislation, however, uses a different system, commonly called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). If that sounds like a Health Savings Account, that's because it functions similarly: Parents get a debit card pre-loaded with funds that can only be used for specific expenses, in this case for those related to education.
Michigan's program is open to children in foster care, with a disability, or who come from a low-income household, which the bill defines as one earning less than 200 percent of the cutoff to receive free or reduced-price school lunch. Participants in the program may use their allotted funds (the amount varies based on the reason for qualification) toward enrollment in a private school. They may also choose instead to use the money for supplies or services, like laptops or Wi-Fi, after-school programs or tutors, online classes, behavioral or speech therapies, and any number of other services that could help a student, especially one with specialized needs.
Ultimately, the big advantage is that parents would be empowered to decide what would best help their child succeed, and they would receive extra funds in order to make it happen.
Other states, like Florida and Arizona, utilize ESAs for their school choice programs. Arizona's is the oldest of any in the U.S., and is broadly popular with parents. Unlike those programs, however, which are funded by the respective state education authorities, Michigan's program would be funded by individual donations, made to nonprofits that would grant scholarships to qualifying students. The donors could then write the money off as tax-deductible charitable donations.
The circuitous nature of the program's funding seems to stem from state law: Michigan is one of a large number of states whose constitutions feature so-called Blaine Amendments, which explicitly forbid the funding of religious schools with public funds. Named for James G. Blaine, the 19th-century Republican congressman who first proposed it as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the laws are facially neutral, but rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry that was rife in the late 1800s. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned Montana's Blaine Amendment, though on the basis that it allowed recipients to use public funds to attend private schools but excluded those with religious affiliations. Michigan law, on the other hand, stipulates that no public money can be used to fund any private schools, regardless of religious status.
The new bill also faces opposition from Michigan Democrats, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In a statement, Whitmer's spokesperson, Bobby Leddy, called the bill a "non-starter," clarifying that it "undermines" the state's constitution by "permitting the diversion of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually to private institutions," additionally specifying that "Michiganders are tired of the attempts to force a Betsy DeVos-style voucher program" on the state.
Other Michigan Democrats have also invoked vouchers and brought up Betsy DeVos, the former secretary of education under President Donald Trump who was a vocal school choice advocate before entering government and whose family has given millions to the cause. In fact, however, the Michigan plan bears little resemblance to a voucher program: Michigan recipients would still be limited to the public schools in their respective geographic districts. Meanwhile, the funds are capped at between $500 and $1,000 per student per school year. While helpful, that is far from enough by itself to enroll in a private school.
Unfortunately, Michigan Democrats seem to be in the habit of overreacting to any sort of legislation that even vaguely resembles 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. Like the current proposal, the program would have authorized the money to be spent on tutors, after-school or summer programs, additional educational materials, etc. 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 already spends an average of $12,756 per year, per student in its public schools, and yet it ranks near the bottom third of schools in the U.S. Not to mention, it is currently sitting on not only a state budget surplus of nearly $5 billion, but nearly $6 billion of unspent federal COVID-19 stimulus funds as well.
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.