A Case for Private School Choice in Detroit

A Detroit Free Press column written by Rochelle Riley suggests that if Detroit parents took a bus ride out to the suburbs to witness what high-performing schools look like and the positive impacts they make, they would demand the same for their children. Riley is right, but there’s a way this could happen with no trip to the ‘burbs required: Universal tuition tax credits

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Actually, there already are plenty of great schools in Detroit. The problem, though, is that most parents don't have access to these schools because many of them are private. Without the tax revenues that fund all conventional and charter schools, private schools must charge tuition, which means their numbers and capacity are limited. 

If low-income Detroit parents are to gain access to high-quality private schools, somebody else will have to pay for it. Riley’s column has an answer for this, too: businesses. She lucidly argues that Detroit business owners want to see the city succeed, and an educated populace is in their own best interest. Firms will benefit by not having to provide as much remedial education and employee training, both of which can be quite costly. Many businesses will view putting money towards funding a child's tuition as a good investment.

That's why a universal tuition tax credit program is so powerful. Instead of funneling their tax dollars through Lansing and on to failing public schools, these credits would allow businesses to instead create scholarships for students to attend private schools. Few firms would turn away from an opportunity to gain the community's goodwill by giving a kid (or hundreds of kids) the chance to attend a high-quality school.

Parents also would qualify for tuition tax credits, and the credits could be made refundable, so that households that pay no income taxes would be reimbursed for educational expenses. One hundred percent of those asked in a recent Excellent Schools Detroit survey said they wanted more scholarships and financial aid to attend private schools, so it’s likely that many parents would take advantage of these new opportunities. 

It should be noted, too, that not every private school is excellent, and some are just plain bad. But as Riley explained, once parents get a taste for what a good school can provide, they'll demand them. Parents who can freely choose their children’s school will gravitate to the best. Schools that fail to attract enough students would be forced to close, unlike the current system where bad schools persist for generations. In an education market place, only schools meeting the demands of parents would prosper. 

In spite of its current hardships, there is still plenty of promise for improving education in Detroit. A group of philanthropic organizations has pledged $200 million to start new schools. Another 5,200 volunteers just signed up to help teach Detroit kids how to read. And private schools in the city keep right on producing excellent results and satisfied parents. The resources are there, believe it or not; Detroit just needs the boldness to implement a plan that would make these genuine education opportunities available to all its children.