Charter School Rally
Students waering "Lift the Cap" hats rally at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to allow creation of more charter schools.
File photo courtesy of TEACH Michigan Education Fund

The debate over the benefits of school choice and more equal access to quality education may soon become more than an intellectual exercise for Michigan citizens.

In May, philanthropist Dick DeVos joined with leaders of Detroit's black community and others to announce the formation of Kids First! YES! (KFY), a campaign committee that plans to place a "local option" school choice amendment to Michigan's constitution on the November 2000 ballot. On July 30, the group submitted ballot language to the state for approval.

The KFY proposal would lift the ban against K-12 vouchers and tuition tax credits, but leave intact the prohibition against direct aid to nonpublic schools. The proposal would provide tuition vouchers for parents in the state's poorest-performing school districts to help them afford alternatives to their failing local public schools.

Opponents were quick to denounce the move. Members of the state's largest school employee union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) called the proposal a "scam." Thom Houseman, vice-chairman of the MEA Republican Caucus, warned that "Educational apartheid is the sure outcome of vouchers. If members cannot comprehend or refuse to recognize the danger here, there will be swift and terrible outcomes."

But some citizens, such as James Collins of Farmington Hills, view opposition to vouchers as an attempt to maintain the status quo. "There is a powerful special-interest coalition that benefits greatly from the current system and will fight to protect it," Collins wrote in the Detroit Free Press. "Sadly, the losers are our children, especially those who are trapped with no alternative to deplorable inner-city public schools."

KFY officials say their proposal will "expand school choice where it is needed most, and where local voters approve it," noting that the school choice amendment would

  • Give parents a "quality guarantee." Families living in the 38 Michigan school districts where at least one-third of students fail to graduate would automatically be eligible for a tuition voucher to help them afford a safer or better school for their children. The voucher would cover tuition paid to a private school up to an amount equaling one-half the state's average per-pupil expenditure for public schools (currently about $5,600). School districts that graduate at least two-thirds of their students would not automatically become voucher districts.

  • Give all other school districts "local option" authority to decide whether they will offer a voucher program to families within their boundaries. Districts could enact a voucher program by a majority vote of school board members or via a citizen-initiated petition drive to place the issue on the ballot for voter approval.

  • Constitutionally guarantee that state and local spending per pupil in each district may increase adjusted for consolidations, annexations, boundary changes, and millage rates but never fall below school-year 2000-2001 spending levels.

  • Require regular teacher competency testing for all public school teachers and teachers in privately administered schools that accept students who use government-financed tuition vouchers.

More important than what the amendment creates is what it removes from Michigan'sconstitution, according to Mackinac Center for Public Policy Director of Education Policy Matthew Brouilette.

"The most important thing any school choice amendment does is remove the discriminatory language that specifically prohibits giving parents of K-12 students the same kinds of financial assistance and tax relief that both Michigan and the federal government already give parents of college and university students," Brouillette says.

Brouillette notes that the legislature could, following voter approval of the KFY proposal, pass a broader statewide school choice plan such as the UTTC, which reduces state taxes owed by parents or other individuals or businesses who pay K-12 tuition for a Michigan child.

Public schools need not fear a reduction in funding, says Brouillette. Both the UTTC and KFY plans would cap the level of financial aid or tax relief at roughly half the state's average per-pupil expenditure for public schools, generating a surplus in the state public school aid fund.

"Parents taking advantage of tuition vouchers or tax credits would be saying to the state, in effect, 'Give me half the money it costs you to educate my child and you keep the other half.' The state could then use the extra money to upgrade public school facilities," says Brouillette.

Outgoing MEA President Julius Maddox agreed that public schools should have more money, but cautioned that Michigan does not need to pursue constitutional changes such as the KFY proposal. "The answers to improving our public schools don't lie in voucher experiments," said Maddox. "The answers rest in tried and proven solutions to improving student learning."

Maddox cited smaller class sizes, rigorously trained teachers, increased parental involvement, and more money as examples of how to improve Michigan public schools.

More information can be obtained at the Kids First YES! Website, www.KidsFirstYES.org .