Ballot Proposal Will Vouch for School Competition

Privatization is the transfer of assets or services from the tax-supported and politicized public sector to the entrepreneurial, competitive private sector. Privatization can take many forms, including outright sales of property, contracting of services, public-private partnerships, and the transfer of decision-making authority from government to the private individuals whose lives are most affected by those decisions.

One way to transfer decision-making authority from government to individuals is through the use of vouchers, or redeemable coupons representing an amount of money a recipient can use to obtain a product or service. Food Stamps are a common example.

Another is state tuition vouchers that parents can give to a school of their choice in return for educating their child. The school turns in the voucher to the state for cash. Kids First! Yes!, a new Michigan nonprofit organization, is proposing tuition vouchers as a way to privatize the decision making regarding which schools Michigan K-12 students attend.

Tuition vouchers, as proposed by Kids First! Yes!, would help families in Michigan's worst-performing districts afford alternatives to their failing government-assigned schools. Parents could use the vouchers to offset tuition costs at the schools they believe best serve their children's educational needs.

The Kids First! YES! proposal is a ballot initiative that will remove language from the Michigan constitution that prohibits tuition vouchers and other forms of school aid for parents of K-12 students. It will also

  • Give parents a "quality guarantee." Families living in the 38 Michigan school districts where at least one-third of students fail to graduate will automatically be eligible for a tuition voucher to help them afford a safer or better school for their children. The voucher will cover tuition paid to a nongovernment school up to an amount equaling one-half of the state's average per-pupil expenditure for public schools (currently about $5,600).

  • Give all other school districts 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 ratesbut never fall below 2000-2001 spending levels.

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

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

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

Brouillette notes that the legislature would be free to offer Michigan parents other school choice plans including the Universal Tuition Tax Credit if voters approved the Kids First! YES! amendment on the 2000 ballot.

Evidence from areas where school choice experiments are underway indicates that choice can improve student performance. In New York, 1,300 low-income families received privately funded scholarships to choose the schools their children would attend. After one year, the scholarship students were scoring higher on reading and math tests than were their public school counterparts.

School choice also helps students who opt to remain in public schools. A 1998 Ohio University study of 607 school districts found that public school students got higher-than-average grades when they lived in areas with larger than usual proportions of students enrolled in private schools. People like economist and study co-author Richard Vedder believe this is because increased competition from private schools forces public schools to do a better job with their students as well.

In fact, Vedder says competition can succeed where increased spending can't. "Increasing private school enrollment in low-spending districts by 25%," says Vedder, "would increase government school performance on the 9th grade proficiency exam by 4.1% and on the 12th grade test by 5.5%, while increasing spending per student in these same districts would have no significant effect."

In education, as throughout the rest of society, choice-driven competition tends to improve the quality of products and services, and lower their costs. Michigan schools, whether public or private, can benefit from the competitive incentives engendered by vouchers. The Kids First! Yes! Voucher proposal is a good step toward privatizing one of the most important decisions affecting every child's education: What school will he or she attend?