Parents who choose private options are often securing excellent educations for their children at a savings to the taxpayer and at great sacrifice of their own resources.
All across America, a consensus is emerging about the troubled state of
public education: The system is hidebound with regulations, bureaucracy, and
disincentives for excellence. Remove these barriers, subject the system to
competition, empower parents with choice, and improvements will at last begin to
take place-that's the general prescription accepted more widely with each
passing day. With the introduction of inter-district choice, charter schools,
school funding restructuring, and other reforms of recent years, Michigan has
made progress. Sadly, however, too many children still languish in poor and
unsafe schools. Few issues are more important to the future of our state than
education reform-making Michigan schools competitive for the 21st century.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is Michigan's leading education reform
organization, having produced hundreds of studies, commentaries, articles, and
policy recommendations since 1988. Its largest publication, Michigan
Education Report (MER), is received by over 130,000 people, including
most teachers in the state. MER and a wealth of education-related
material can be easily found using the search engine at
30. Remove the cap on the number of charter schools state universities can
Michigan's status as a national charter school leader is directly related to
the bold and innovative steps taken by state universities. However, this
progress is being impeded by the legislative limitation placed on the number of
charter schools state universities can authorize.
The current cap is set at 150 schools, despite increased demand from parents. In
fact, 66 percent of Michigan's charter schools have waiting lists, and 75
percent of the state's charter schools' enrollment grew from the 2000-01 school
year to 2001-02.19 See Chart 7. The Legislature should remove this cap and allow for the
expansion of charter schools rather than rationing choice and opportunity to
children. It should also consider the creation of an additional authorizing
entity such as a statewide charter school board.
Charter schools have been particularly well received by many minority and
poor students. More than 50 percent of Michigan's charter school students are
ethnic minorities, compared to an average of 19 percent in traditional public
schools. Forty percent of charter school students are eligible for the free and
reduced portions of the National School Lunch Program.20 For these students,
charter schools offer the only alternative to a system that is failing to meet
their needs. These opportunities should be expanded rather than restricted.
An April 2002 report from a commission headed by Michigan State University
President Peter McPherson endorsed the need for more alternatives, particularly
for disadvantaged students, but contradicted itself by calling for an overly
restrictive expansion of charter schools precisely where students with the
greatest needs reside.
The charter school movement is the future of public education-local control
and accountability with public funds. The Michigan Department of Education and
the Superintendent of Public Instruction should begin to prepare the state for
For further information, please see
31. Extend the length of charter school contracts and allow schools to use
multiple sites under one charter.
The length of charter contracts is not specified by statute, but three to five
years has emerged as the norm. Contracts of such short duration have a
dramatically negative impact on the financial arrangements that charter schools
can enter into, thereby reducing flexibility and options and raising the cost of
providing an education. The Legislature should encourage charter school
authorizers to use long-term contracts or even "evergreen" contracts that can be
revoked any time a compliance failure exists or persists.
Allowing charter schools to use multiple sites under one charter would permit
campus-style schools with a single address, the use of off-site facilities for
instructional purposes, or the establishment of charter high schools that
service pre-existing K-8 charters. A multi-charter contract also would encourage
replication of quality programs that are in demand by parents.
32. Prohibit traditional public school districts from restricting the use of
non-utilized school buildings by charter schools.
The Legislature should stipulate that when a government school seeks to sell a
facility, it cannot prohibit the sale of the property to a charter school or in
any way inhibit the use of that property by a charter school after sale.
33. Allow property tax exemption to be passed on from a charter school to its
Schools that lease facilities currently suffer additional costs because their
landlord cannot benefit from the schools' tax-exempt status. This reform would
help ease the burden that charter schools now have with regard to securing
34. Permit experience and/or education to qualify teachers for charter
In addition to hiring state-certified teachers, charter schools should be
allowed to hire noncertified teachers whose experience and/or education
qualifies them to teach in a particular field.
Arizona law permits noncertified teachers to enter the teaching profession, and
that state has experienced great success in attracting the kind of quality
educators who would be excluded from teaching at traditional public schools in
Michigan. Meanwhile, statistics on homeschooled children demonstrate the weak
relationship between certification and academic success.21
35. Reform teacher certification to increase the pool of quality teachers.
Teacher certification has never guaranteed qualification. In fact, many people
who possess the ability and knowledge to teach are ultimately excluded from
entering the teaching profession due to expensive, time consuming, and onerous
red tape imposed by certification procedures.
The original purpose of the teacher certification process was to ensure quality,
but certification does not guarantee mastery of a subject. According to the U.S.
Department of Education, 36 percent of public school teachers-972,000 teachers
out of 2.7 million nationwide-did not major or minor in the core subjects they
Dr. Sam Peavey, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, is among many
experts who argue that "after 50 years of research, we have found no significant
correlation between the requirements for teacher certification and the quality
of student achievement."23
The state should reform teacher certification in order to allow the most
qualified people to enter the classroom at any time. The teaching profession
should be open to all who are deemed to be positive role models and competent in
their subject areas, regardless of certification or lack thereof. School
districts and individual schools should be given the authority to set
qualifications for teachers.
Public policy should address the shortage of highly qualified teachers by
encouraging local schools and districts to recruit teachers from the ranks of
their best students and provide training and mentoring in the schools in which
they will serve. Additionally, by allowing local schools and districts to
establish their own teacher qualification standards, competent professionals
with subject matter expertise would be recruited into the teaching profession.
For further information, please see
36. Expand public schools-of-choice programs to allow all students in all
districts to attend the public school of their choice.
The Legislature should remove the provision in section 105 of the State School
Aid Act24 that allows school districts to choose, or refuse, participation in
the public schools-of-choice program. All schools should be required to
participate, and all Michigan students should be allowed to attend the public
school of their choice.
In 1996, the state of Michigan made it easier for parents to choose their
child's school from among those in their own and neighboring districts.
Previously, parents wanting to send their children to schools other than their
assigned district school were typically forced to obtain permission from the
assigned district in order to avoid paying tuition to the public school of their
For participating districts, the law now allows students to transfer between
public schools in the same local district, to public schools in the same
intermediate school district, or to public schools in contiguous intermediate
districts without paying tuition, provided the desired district has space. While
the number of students exercising public school choice is increasing, the number
involved in the schools-of-choice program is limited because districts control
whether or not they will participate.
Although the law doesn't explicitly limit the number of students who can leave
districts to attend schools outside their district boundaries, intermediate
school districts often strictly limit the number of students they enroll from
outside neighborhoods. Intermediate school district conglomerates may "opt out"
of certain provisions in the state's public school choice plan and create their
own choice programs that are actually aimed at curtailing the level of choice.
As a result, although the law encourages more choice than ever, choice remains
elusive for many students.
According to the Michigan Department of Education, 283 out of 554 districts
participate in Michigan's schools-of-choice plan, and another 165 districts have
adopted their own plans, offering very limited forms of choice. More than 100
districts do not permit choice. Overall, the number of students participating
statewide in the choice program has grown from 5,611 in the 1996-1997 school
year to 33,506 in 2001-02, a small percentage of the 1.7 million K-12 public
school population in Michigan.25 See Chart 8.
Districts such as the Genesee and Kent Intermediate School Districts have
created their own choice programs, allowing few students to choose the school in
which they enroll. The programs allow each student's assigned district to deny
or grant permission each year for that student to attend his or her
If the district denies permission for a student to leave, the student faces the
same dilemma he would have faced before the choice program began: He must pay
tuition to the district of his choice or stay in the assigned district.
It is time for this to change. The Legislature should alter the
schools-of-choice law to require all districts to allow public school students
to freely choose the school they prefer to attend. This would provide ample
competition between districts, encourage improvements, and free students from
schools that are not serving their individual needs.
Opening the public schools-of-choice plan to offer full choice would also
benefit districts financially. Though the choice plan has been criticized and
rebuffed by some district officials, it has proved profitable for many districts
that have participated. For example, during the 1990s, as choice increased
through the growth of charter schools and public school choice, the Dearborn
school district began preparing to retain and attract students. New, specialized
programs were developed, with parents' preferences becoming the primary focus.
Concurrent with Dearborn's aggressive efforts to recruit students, enrollment in
Dearborn public schools increased from 13,857 in 1994-95 to 17,075 in 2000-01,
even as competition from neighboring school districts and charter schools has
For more on how districts are responding to competition, see the 2000
Mackinac Center for Public Policy report, "The Impact of Limited School Choice
on Public School Districts."
For further information, please see
37. Remove from the state constitution discriminatory language that
prohibits education tax credits, and place a Universal Tuition Tax Credit before
The U.S. Supreme Court has defended the primary right and responsibility of
parents to direct the education of their children.26 However, Article 8,
Section 2 of the 1963 Michigan Constitution prevents the majority of Michigan
parents from choosing the safest and best schools for their children without
paying twice. It is therefore incumbent upon the Legislature and the citizens of
Michigan to remove the 1970 amendment that took away this right and
responsibility from parents.
Under the current system, parents who choose to send their children to a
nongovernment school must pay twice-once in taxes for public schools they don't
use and again in tuition for the school they do use. This financial penalty
prevents the majority of Michiganians from exercising their rights as parents,
as it is only the wealthy who are able to afford such financial choices.
As detailed in the Mackinac Center for Public Policy study, "The Universal
Tuition Tax Credit: A Proposal to Advance Parental Choice in Education," a
properly designed education tax credit plan can save money for the state's
School Aid Fund, make possible an increase in the state's per pupil foundation
allocation, create new incentives for school improvement, and expand options for
parents-all at the same time.
Education tax credits are gaining momentum across the country. In recent years,
12 states have considered, and six have passed into law, some form of education
tax credit (see Table 1). Arizona's
program is the largest in the country, having provided more than 19,000
scholarships worth over $32 million to low-income students since 1998.27 In
2001, Pennsylvania and Florida enacted credits for businesses that want to help
pay tuition for students to attend better or safer schools.
For further information, please see
38. Preserve and strengthen Proposal A and school choice through "Proposal
When Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved the school finance constitutional
amendment known as Proposal A in 1994, they thought they were going to get
several important things: a sales tax hike in exchange for significant property
tax relief, less disparity in spending among school districts, and substantially
more per-pupil funding.
The plan has delivered on those promises, but there's a rising chorus for giving
school districts renewed authority to seek higher local property taxes. For
schools that need extra money and can make a good case for it, there's a much
better way than undoing what the voters endorsed seven years ago: It's a plan
known as "Proposal A+."
First, it's important to take account of just how much Proposal A has
accomplished for Michigan. Prior to 1994, Michigan's property tax burden was 35
percent above the national average and driving residents and businesses
elsewhere.28 Today, that burden is much closer to the national average and one
of the reasons for the state's impressive economic progress of recent years.
Proposal A has been good news for schools, too. Since 1994, the minimum
per-pupil foundation allowance that school districts are guaranteed by the state
has risen almost 43 percent, two-and-a-half times the inflation rate. In
1993-94, the 10 lowest-spending districts spent $3,476 per pupil while the top
10 spent $9,726. Today, the lowest 10 spend almost twice as much-$6,500-and the
highest 10 spend $11,189.29 According to the National Education Association,
Michigan outspends 43 other states per pupil.
Nonetheless, if there are schools that can't or don't want to effect cost
savings to improve their bottom lines and can make a convincing case that they
need more money to do their job, they could do so under Proposal A+. This is not
another tax hike opportunity. Rather, it's a chance to encourage greater
financial support on a voluntary basis for all schools, public and private, at
the same time.
The proposal was first presented publicly in the Dec. 7, 2001 issue of The
Detroit News, in a commentary jointly authored by Congressman Peter Hoekstra and
Mackinac Center President Lawrence Reed. It would amend the Michigan
Constitution to allow a "universal" tax credit for educational expenses and for
contributions to scholarship funds. The credit could be claimed by parents,
friends, family members and even businesses against such levies as the state's
personal income tax, 6-mill statewide property tax and the Single Business Tax.
The maximum credit need not be high. Arizona's $500 tax credit has generated
tens of millions of dollars in scholarship funds for students from low-income
families, and millions more for use in the public schools.
The Proposal A+ plan would apply toward contributions to public as well as
private schools. It would mean that government schools would not have to mount
expensive and uncertain ballot efforts to get voter approval for a tax increase.
If they made their case persuasively, they could entice individuals and
businesses to make voluntary contributions. Up to the maximum credit allowed,
those contributions would not cost the donor a penny, and nobody's taxes would
increase as a result.
By allowing even a small tax credit for private education, Proposal A+ would
strengthen local influence in the financial investment in Michigan children's
education. Parents who choose private options, particularly low-income parents
in inner cities, are often securing excellent educations for their children at a
savings to the taxpayer and at great sacrifice of their own resources. They
deserve a break. Parents who want to help their local public schools also will
have the opportunity to do so.
Proposal A+ is not a voucher. Voters spoke convincingly and finally on that
question in defeating a voucher plan in November 2000. The much more palatable
and familiar vehicle of a tax credit would encourage contributions to schools,
public and private, that make the best case that their fellow citizens should do
more to support education.