Can Michigan Keep Its Status as a Leader in Education Reform?

"Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." So reads Article VIII, Section 1 of Michigan's Constitution. It's a ringing declaration that says to every parent, "If you really care about your child's education, state government will not stand in your way." Are we keeping faith with the spirit of that declaration or just going through the motions?

The truth is, we can only pretend that we're faithful to that part of our constitution because another part obstructs it. Article VIII, Section 2, in language more restrictive than that of any other state constitution in the country, forbids any sort of relief for parents who choose a private alternative to the public schools. They receive no tax credits, exemptions, or deductions; no vouchers; no grants or loans directly or indirectly-not a nickel back on the taxes they pay to support a system they don't even patronize.

Consider the thousands of low-income parents in the inner cities of Detroit, Flint or Grand Rapids who take a strong, personal interest in the education of their children and have chosen private or religious schools. Rather than send their children to public schools they perceive as unsafe or otherwise inferior, they scrape and sacrifice to do what they believe in their hearts is best. With few exceptions, the children are, by almost any measure, better served. What Article VIII, Section 2 says to those parents is this: "Tough luck. You have to pay twice. It doesn't matter that you've made the best choice for your children. The public monopoly is more important than they are."

With charter schools, greater choice among public schools, and other measures that have curtailed the excessive clout of militant teacher unions, Michigan has made historic progress on the road to education reform. But that road is nearing a dead-end. Children deserve so much more, but if Article VIII, Section 2 stays on the books, Michigan may lose its status as a reform leader and become the nation's laggard instead.

This fall, Ohio joins Wisconsin as the second state to adopt a voucher program. At least 1,500 Cleveland students in grades K-3 will be allowed to attend the school of their choice, public or private, religious or secular. Each student will receive a voucher worth up to $2,250 in state funds. All of the 1,500 vouchers are going to poor families, and another 2,000 children from low-income households have been put on a waiting list. Both states are likely to expand their voucher programs and many other states are poised to follow suit.

The Wisconsin and Ohio programs do not violate the separation of church and state any more than did the GI Bill, under which many veterans went to college. In neither Wisconsin nor Ohio is the state government writing checks directly to religious schools, nor should it. The vouchers are being given to parents, who in turn have the power to choose whichever schools they want for their children. (Government does not tell food stamp recipients that they must redeem their coupons in government grocery stores, and when they take them to private supermarkets that doesn't somehow transform those stores into departments of government.)

Nonetheless, Michigan could do better than vouchers. If it were not for Article VIII, Section 2 of the state constitution, Michigan could adopt tuition tax credits. Parents who choose to patronize nonpublic schools could receive a tax credit of up to, say, $2,000. Because the average per pupil expenditure in Michigan public schools is more than twice that, taxpayers in the long run would still save money every time a parent chose a private school.

Tuition tax credits are superior to vouchers because no one can say to a private school parent, "Some of my money is going into your religious school." After all, a tax credit means some of the parent's own money is being refunded for his or her child's education. Many observers believe that this approach might make it harder for government to exert control over private education, a very real danger if government is issuing vouchers funded by everybody. Michigan should keep its constitutional prohibition against direct state aid to private schools, and probably should retain its prohibition against vouchers as well; allowing for tuition tax credits, however, would be an act of simple fairness.

More than just parents of school-age children could be included in a tax credit program. Individuals and businesses could receive a tax credit for paying the tuition of someone else's child or for contributing to scholarship funds administered by the schools themselves.

Tax credits would provide a far stronger incentive than the much more limited tax deductions anyone might receive under our current system. President Clinton recognized that when he recently proposed a tuition tax credit plan for two years of higher education at any public, private or religious college in the country.

In America, choice in such things as the colleges we attend, the foods we eat, the places where we work, and the stores we patronize is widely accepted as a basic liberty. To that list, it's time we add the first twelve years of schooling. But unless the unjust barriers erected by Article VIII, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution are removed, our state will continue to shelter public monopoly from healthy competition and discriminate against caring parents who want what's best for their children.