In Cleveland, Ohio, 3,000 children entered private schools this fall in the second year of a publicly-financed voucher program. Fifty-seven schools are participating, including Hope Central Academy where principal William Morris says, "For the first time in decades, inner city education is coming alive with new options and real progress."
Last April, Arizona enacted a law that permits tax credits of up to $500 for anyone contributing to charitable groups that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools. In June, by an overwhelming vote, Minnesota greatly expanded its program of tax credits for educational expenses, including private school tuition.
Ohio, Arizona and Minnesota are leaders among a growing number of states that are speeding past Michigan in the race to improve education. Whether it be by vouchers or tuition tax credits, legislatures are moving to enact innovations that introduce competition and enhance parental choice. Meanwhile, Michigan children are blocked from enjoying similar reforms by a 1970 amendment to the state’s constitution—arguably the most repressive, anti-choice provision of any state constitution in America.
Article VIII, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution outlaws any "payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deduction, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property . . . to support the attendance of any student" at any nonpublic school. This airtight ban prevents the government from writing checks directly to private schools, which assures the separation of church and state and minimizes the danger of government intrusion into private education. But by forbidding even a small tax credit for nonpublic school parents, it unfairly forces those parents to pay for their children’s education twice and to subsidize a public system they’ve chosen to escape. Oddly enough, Michigan allows a modest tax credit for private or public college tuition, while the state constitution bans anything similar for K-12 education!
Nonpublic school parents are not only doing what they regard as best for their children; they are saving Michigan taxpayers almost $1.5 billion this year. That’s how much the state would have to raise taxes if all those parents pulled their 240,000 children from private and home schools and enrolled them in the public system.
Moreover, Article VIII, Section 2 is unfair to every Michigan child because it stifles the healthy forces of competition that are transforming and improving virtually every other aspect of modern life. Impeding competition serves unions, bureaucracy, and those who enjoy the material benefits of monopoly, but it removes incentives for quality, efficiency, and accountability. If the purpose of education is to prepare children for the future, Michigan’s constitution must change.
The broad outlines of the most prudent constitutional change are these: The state’s prohibition against direct aid to private schools should remain. Parents who are already making education a priority by their personal, private choices should be encouraged, not penalized. Other citizens who want Michigan children to have the most options and the best opportunities must be stimulated to get directly involved. And barriers to better education for poor children should be removed.
Vouchers, though a likely improvement over the present system, are not the best way to accomplish these things because they invite greater government control over private education. They also would prompt many parents to raise this legitimate objection to their use by private school parents: "Some of my money is going to send your child to a religious school."
The best route for educational improvement in Michigan is to permit tuition tax credits—not just for parents who send their children to an alternative school, but for anyone (including friends, relatives, and businesses) who contributes toward the tuition of any child attending any school that charges tuition, public or private. A plan that would bring this about is now on the table for public debate and is known as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Universal Tuition Tax Credit (UTTC).
The UTTC is "universal" because it would apply to any elementary or secondary student towards tuition paid to any public or private "alternative" school in Michigan, including a public school outside a child’s intermediate district which charges his parents tuition. It would be applicable against the personal income tax, the Single Business Tax, or the 6-mill statewide property tax and could be used by any state taxpayer—individual or business—that pays tuition for a Michigan student to attend an alternative school. It is capped at 50 percent of the state’s per pupil expenditure (currently about $5,600).
Phased in over nine years, the UTTC would actually save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, which could be used to boost school funding or returned to the taxpayers in tax cuts. If it were fully operational right now, for instance, every child who opted out of the more expensive traditional public system for a less expensive alternative school would save the state $5,600 in expenditures, while costing the state no more than 50 percent of that, for a net savings of $2,800.
Innovative concepts like the UTTC are cropping up in other states which don’t have draconian prohibitions against educational choice and competition. It’s time to start asking why Michigan’s constitution should continue to thwart the kind of reform that can make a real difference in the lives of our children.