Adding private schools to the school choice debate

When Michigan debates "school choice," the discussion is typically limited to public education. From assigned public schools to inter-district public school choice to charter schools, the question for the past quarter century has been how much freedom parents should have to choose one or another public school for their children.

But in other states, "school choice" is a much broader topic. Fifteen states offer one or more tax credits, tax deductions or publicly funded scholarships or vouchers that can be applied to private schools and private school costs, including religious schools. Oklahoma joined the list just last month with a scholarship program directed at children with disabilities.

Supporters say that such programs recognize the primary role of parents in choosing the best educational setting for their children, and that they make education funding more equitable. Beyond that, they argue that supporting private school choice — as public policy — makes sense academically and financially.

Michigan does not have either a tuition tax incentive program or a publicly funded scholarship program. The state Senate in January passed a modest proposal to establish tax credits for donations to either private or public K-12 school foundations, but that bill has not been taken up by the House.

Introduced by Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, Senate Bill 38 would grant up to a $50 or $100 credit to individuals or joint filers, respectively, as well as up to $2,500 for an estate or trust. The money would have to be used for "nonessential supplies and assistance."

"All our school systems are having trouble," Pappageorge told Michigan Education Report. "The point is, if citizens want to help a school, we ought to give them some incentive. This is not a big, complicated thing."

"I just think that it is patently unfair for me to pay double for my child's education — once through my property taxes (for the public schooling that we don't take advantage of) and again for the parochial school tuition that we do pay," Mike Czuprenski, a Warren parent, told Michigan Education Report in an e-mail.

The biggest obstacle to a K-12 tax incentive program in Michigan is language in the state Constitution that bans direct or indirect government assistance to nonpublic schools. (Transportation is specifically exempted from the ban, and "shared services" — cases in which public schools offered certain elective courses to nonpublic school students — is also allowed.)

"The language in our state Constitution is impairing our ability to serve these kids," Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools, told Michigan Education Report in an interview about the state of nonpublic schools in Michigan.

Other states also have language barring state assistance to private schools, but Michigan's is generally considered the most prohibitive.

"If the courts don't think it's a good idea, they'll tell us," Pappageorge said of potential legal objections to Senate Bill 38, which passed on a 24-13 vote.

Adding a tax incentive or publicly funded scholarship program is often an incremental process, according to a model of policy change called the Overton Window. Named for Joseph Overton, late vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the individual who developed the model, the Overton Window suggests that the process of change begins with ideas.

When society embraces new ideas — including new ideas in education — it makes it more acceptable for politicians to support those ideas as well, thus shifting the window of possibilities.

"Michigan has seen significant change in school choice in the past 30 years, generally driven by parents who want more freedom to make educational choices for their children," said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center. "We've moved toward more freedom in home-schooling and added limited public charter school choices, but we've done nothing to expand and support private school options for parents."

(The Mackinac Center publishes Michigan Education Report and has long supported policy change in favor of a universal tuition tax credit in Michigan.)

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of an Arizona program that allows taxpayers a credit against their state income taxes for money they donate to private school scholarship organizations — a program that raised about $55 million in 2008. But that isn't the only program making headlines in the school choice community.

  • In a high-profile case in Illinois this spring, state Senator James Meeks pushed for a pilot voucher program targeted at Chicago Public Schools that would have allowed as many as 30,000 students to leave the worst-performing schools and attend a private school instead.

Meeks, also a minister at one of Chicago's larger churches, said that giving each child up to a $4,000 voucher would give them a better education and save the state money, since the Chicago school district spends more than that on each public school student. Meeks' legislation passed the Illinois Senate, but was rejected in the House.

  • Florida recently expanded its Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, in which corporations receive a tax credit for donations to organizations that offer private-school vouchers to low-income families. At the current growth rate, the number of participating students could reach 70,000 by 2015.
  • In New Jersey, a Senate committee recently approved a bill that would create scholarships for some low-income children to attend private or out-of-district public schools. The Opportunity Scholarships, designed to aid students in failing schools, would be funded by contributions from companies in exchange for dollar-for-dollar tax credits.
  • Finally, the Oklahoma Legislature adopted a measure in late May that will create publicly funded scholarships for students with disabilities to attend any public or private school that meets state accreditation requirements.

There's little question that a tax incentive program would help make private school a more viable option for some parents in Michigan, and also that it would help nonpublic schools financially at a time when the weak economy means parents have less disposable income to pay tuition.

"If you closed down all of the private schools in the state ... where is the state going to come up with the money for these children to go to public schools?" Broderick asked.

"I don't know if they (the public schools) could afford all of our kids," agreed Superintendent Bernadette Sugrue of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The archdiocese is home to 80 elementary and 22 high schools, though the number of schools and students is shrinking. Sugrue attributes it to families leaving the area, unemployment and the inability to pay tuition, and the growth of charter schools.

"Families that come here pay twice for school. Any time there's an increase in the public school sector, they pay more," said Eric VanDerhoof, the administrator of Midland Christian School.

A father of four, Czuprenski said his children have attended both public and parochial schools and that he sees the benefit of each.

"I understand that each type of school has a different mission, different audience, vastly different financial priorities and a unique set of governing rules. While public schools aren't for everyone, neither are parochial," he said.


Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.