This year promises to be significant for Michigan politics. A new governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and new members of both the state legislature and Congress will be elected. The airwaves are likely to be filled with promises to improve Michigan’s K-12 education system which, by many accounts, does not fare well in comparison with neighboring states, let alone the rest of the country.
Last year, Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois signed into law a bipartisan tax plan that allows corporate and individual donors to receive a 75 percent state tax credit for making contributions to private school scholarship programs. Nearly 20 states now have tax credit scholarship programs. Several additional states and municipalities, including Washington, D.C., offer vouchers so that parents can choose a school that best serves their children, recognizing that parents are ultimately in the best position to make such a determination.
Creating opportunities for children without regard to ZIP code or wealth is a common-sense and powerful movement that is picking up momentum across the country. Except here in Michigan. That’s because Article 8, Section 2 of the state constitution, which prohibits direct and indirect aid to nonpublic schools, remains an antiquated impediment restricting opportunities for improvement. While a growing number of states have moved forward with greater choice options, Michigan’s outdated constitutional language regrettably remains in place.
With an eye toward the future, rather than a reliance on the distant past, Illinois became the most recent Midwest state to enact greater educational choice. “Watch the long line of students and their parents who’ll apply for these scholarships,” opined the Chicago Tribune. Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Iowa have long supported policies that enhance educational choice – including vouchers – recognizing the significant role nonpublic schools play in their communities. “Take a bow, all you Democratic and Republican lawmakers who bucked the intense teachers union lobbying against this initiative,” said the Tribune editorial supporting Illinois’ scholarship credit.
Michigan’s entrenched special interests work hard to prevent change and protect financial and political interests and regrettably have dominated Michigan’s education policy for decades.
Policy change is necessary, especially change that benefits low-income families and students from economically distressed areas of the state. It is still not clear how recent federal tax code changes that open 529 Savings Plans to K-12 education will impact Michigan residents. While this change in law is a significant first step, it may have limited use for low income families who cannot afford to save for their children’s education. As policymakers, social service agencies, and many people of good-will seek to reduce and eliminate the destructive cycle of poverty, our state must move forward and explore how voucher programs and tax credits can help provide a brighter future for minority and under-served communities.
Michigan’s children deserve the same opportunities as those that live throughout the Midwest and across the country. Let’s hope in this election cycle a significant discussion takes place around improving education for all of Michigan’s children, including options that would allow parents, particularly low-income parents, to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.
Brian D. Broderick is executive director of Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools.