Is school choice dead in Michigan?


Reports of the death of educational choice, like reports of Mark Twain's death, are likely to prove highly premature. Despite the recent failure of vouchers at Michigan polls, there are other school choice ideas waiting in the wings for a test, possibly as early as 2004. Meanwhile, the demand for more charter schools remains high and thousands of students continue to take advantage of Michigan's existing public school choice programs.

In 1970, when the Michigan government tried to funnel some money to private schools, the result was a constitutional amendment banning virtually all forms of "parochiaid." In 1978, when churches and others pushed a measure to repeal the amendment and adopt a voucher system, it was crushed by a 3-1 vote.

Michigan voters once again sent a strong message on Nov. 7: no mixing of taxpayer dollars and private education. The latest voucher initiative in Michigan, Proposal 1, went down to a stinging defeat by more than a 2-1 margin.

Backers of Proposal 1 had hoped that their more carefully targeted measure would meet with approval. It was aimed mainly at "failing" school districts so the majority of voters wouldn't feel threatened by the plan. The costs to taxpayers were portrayed as marginal. And the campaign in favor of Proposal 1 was generously financed to the tune of nearly $13 million.

And still the proposal seemed to sink like a stone. The same happened to California's Proposition 38, which would have installed a statewide voucher system and was even more lavishly financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper. Though some voucher supporters are complaining that their measures might have done better if Republicans like Gov. John Engler had supported their efforts, the message still seems clear: Voters just don't buy vouchers.

Dick DeVos, the very determined Amway Corp. executive, said the pro-voucher Kids First! Yes! team would remain intact for now.

"We plan to learn as much as we can from this experience, share it with others, and then use the lessons for future campaigns," said DeVos.

Just where the future choice efforts will take place is not yet certain. It's unlikely that anybody will run vouchers back up the flagpole in Michigan any time soon. And the idea that the best route to educational choice lies through direct appeals to voters has been severely damaged by the California and Michigan experiences.

This suggests an incremental approach to reform, much as Democrats switched to an incremental approach to health care reform after outright nationalization failed.

The Michigan Legislature is expected to consider raising the cap on charter schools in the next session. More school districts in Michigan are actively participating in the schools-of-choice program, allowing students to transfer between public school districts.

On a national level, the Supreme Court has upheld programs in states that allow the use of taxpayer funding for private schools if the purpose is primarily educational. One such program in Cleveland was recently struck down by an Ohio federal court, and that decision may yet be appealed to the Supreme Court. And President-elect George W. Bush has vowed to voucherize some of the federal money that flows to K-12 schools-essentially an extension of the principle behind the G.I. Bill and Pell grants.

Other proposals for encouraging educational choice might yet succeed in places like Michigan, which have strict constitutional limits on direct aid to private and parochial schools. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has put forward a tax-credit approach that it believes might avoid much of the constitutional baggage of Proposal 1, allowing parents to choose their child's school and take a tax credit for a portion of the tuition paid. Under the plan, no state money would flow directly to private schools.

The most powerful impetus for choice measures in Michigan and around the country remains the inability of the existing system to right itself. Detroit voters could be scared by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the political establishment into rallying around the public school monopoly one more time. But if the current reform effort shows signs of flagging-as some believe it already is-there is likely to be growing pressure for the kind of built-in accountability that educational competition would provide.

Washington-based conservative activist Grover Norquist notes that "our polling consistently shows that even people who oppose vouchers support the idea of educational choice by substantial margins. They see the need for alternatives."

And what is often forgotten is that the idea of educational choice is attractive to committed liberals as well as conservatives. It was no accident that the very Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist, has been one of the most ardent backers of vouchers. And before the Democratic establishment whipped Detroit's powerful black ministers back into line, there was increasing talk of educational choice as the new civil right of our times.

The idea of school choice remains alive and well in the minds of many parents who want nothing more than the best education possible for their children. Sooner or later, those parents, whether in Michigan or elsewhere, are going to find a way to act on that idea.

Tom Bray is a columnist for The Detroit News and He has served as a reporter, bureau chief, and member of the editorial page staff for The Wall Street Journal and an editor for The Detroit News.