News Story

State Board of Education President Makes False Voucher Claims

John Austin is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which says vouchers have 'statistically positive impacts' for college attendance

The president of the State Board of Education was wrong when he compared a bill that would change how education is funded to a voucher system, said Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, made the comparison when discussing the Michigan Public Education Finance Project proposal, which would allow public schools to take state money from students no matter where they live.

In addition to being on the State Board of Education, Austin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank that has produced a wide-range of research supporting school choice, including vouchers.

"This is a voucher system," Austin was quoted as saying in the Detroit Free Press. "It's absolutely destructive. It has nothing to do with improving quality. It's loaded with the ideology of creating a new for-profit system for learning that will dismantle the schools we have."

A voucher system has been defined as financial aid to directly or indirectly support the attendance of a student at a private school, Van Beek said.

“Vouchers are defined in our constitution and this proposal is not it,” Van Beek said.

Austin amended his comment when contacted via email.

“It is effectively a voucher system, as a host of new schools, specialty schools and online learning providers, many run by private companies and for-profit operators will be authorized, with money following to these vendors,” Austin said.

But Van Beek said that also is misleading.

For example, a student from Detroit could currently enroll in an online cyber class in Traverse City, but the Traverse City school district could not get funding for that Detroit student. Van Beek said the bill would expand the boundaries for a funding system that was set up in 1994 when charter schools were introduced.

He said there are many “for-profit” entities that work with the public school system, such as companies that contract with schools for books, computers and buses.

Charter schools, however, are public schools with public school boards. Charter schools often choose to contract with a for-profit management company to operate the public school, Van Beek said.

Austin makes it sound as if the money goes directly to the for-profit management companies, Van Beek said.

“That’s not true,” Van Beek said.

He said a student has to first opt to enroll in the public charter school and the charter school district has to approve an agreement with the for-profit operating company.

“It is very different from a voucher system where public money can go directly to a private school,” Van Beek said.

If the state were to revise the constitution and implement a voucher program where students could take money to any authorized public or private school, it seems that many of the scholars at the Brookings Institution would have little objection. An examination of most of the papers, studies and books produced by the think tank shows support for school choice.

The most recent education study done in August found "statistically positive impacts" for a portion of the study's participants.

In the first study, using a randomized experiment to measure the impact of school vouchers on college enrollment, Matthew Chingos and Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard University, examine the college-going behavior through 2011 of students who participated in a voucher experiment as elementary school students in the late 1990s. They find no overall impacts on college enrollment but do find large, statistically significant positive impacts on the college going of African-American students who participated in the study.

Their estimates indicate that using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African Americans by 24 percent. 

Lansing attorney Richard McLellan led the team that drafted the education reform bill. McLellan is a founder of the Mackinac Center and is secretary of the organization's board of directors.

(Editor's note: This story has been edited from its original version to add context about the proposed bill.)


See also:

New Report Card Compares High School Test Scores and Adjusts For Economic Status

Charter Schools Average Smaller Class Sizes

Inaccurate Claims Buoy Attacks On Charter Public Schools - 'There is no such thing as a "for-profit" charter school in Michigan'

Charter School Demand Continues to Rise

Parents Pin Hopes on Charter School Lottery