V. Improving Education for Michigan Children (1 of 2)

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 www.mackinac.org.

30. Remove the cap on the number of charter schools state universities can authorize.

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 the transition.

For further information, please see www.mackinac.org/3719, www.mackinac.org/3219, and www.mackinac.org/2975.

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 landlord.

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 facilities.

34. Permit experience and/or education to qualify teachers for charter schools.

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 teach.22

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 www.mackinac.org/1651.

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 choice.

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 school-of-choice.

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 increased.

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 www.mackinac.org/2962 and www.mackinac.org/3236.


37. Remove from the state constitution discriminatory language that prohibits education tax credits, and place a Universal Tuition Tax Credit before voters.

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 www.mackinac.org/3541, www.mackinac.org/3662, and www.mackinac.org/S1997-04.

38. Preserve and strengthen Proposal A and school choice through "Proposal A+."

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.