Michigan Lags Nation on School Choice

There is no doubt that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has presided over a major expansion of school choice in this state: An artificial cap on the number of brick-and-mortar charter public schools is on a path toward elimination in 2015, and a similar limit on the number of parents who can choose online charter schools for their children is also going up. At the same time, however, these advances look almost modest compared to a nationwide trend of states taking school choice to the next level. The school choice bar is moving rapidly higher.

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For example, New Hampshire is just a governor’s signature away from enacting a well-designed education tax credit program. (Mackinac Center analysts devised such a system for Michigan back in 1997.) The measure passed with 70 percent approval in both the state House and Senate. It will let businesses receive tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations. These SGOs then provide grants allowing students to attend private schools, homeschools or regular public schools outside their assigned district. The total amount of tax credits is capped, but if donations exceed 80 percent of the cap, it will automatically increase by 25 percent.

Florida has the largest education tax credit program in the country, and recently enlarged it with the support of 80 percent of Sunshine State legislators. In February, Arizona expanded a similar program. It allows individual taxpayers to claim a tax credit when donating to SGOs. The Grand Canyon State also expanded an “education savings account” program that provides state funding for special needs students to use for private schools, online schooling or even to save for college.

Virginia created an education tax credit program this year — its first foray into the private school choice arena. Ohio, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are also considering expanding or creating tax credit programs.

This year Louisiana enacted one of the largest private school choice programs ever. The post-Katrina New Orleans voucher system was made available to students statewide, and now low- and middle-income students in poorly performing public schools can qualify for a voucher to offset the costs of attending a public or private school of their parents’ choice. It’s estimated that 380,000 students could qualify for such a voucher in Bayou State.

All of these new school choice programs make Michigan’s effort appear rather lukewarm in comparison: While tens and even hundreds of thousands of students in other states can use one of nearly 30 private school choice programs to attend the school that fits them best, Michigan toils just to expand public school options for parents.

For example, the original bill to expand online charter school options left it up to parents to determine how many students would take advantage of this innovative new learning opportunity. After tortuously working its way past trenchant teacher union and conventional public school opposition in the Republican-controlled House, the bill merely raises an enrollment cap to an arbitrary 2 percent of statewide enrollment. Another bill that would free parents from artificial school district boundaries appears all but dead in the Senate.

Around the country, 2011 was “The Year of School Choice,” and 2012 is shaping up to deliver a solid encore. Michigan lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid to be bold in embracing the benefits of full parental choice.

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