Governor Groesbeck: Road Builder and Defender of School Choice

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Roads and schools, two big issues in Michigan during the 1990s, were also major concerns during the 1920s, when Alex Groesbeck was Michigan’s daring three-term governor.

The Michigan-born Groesbeck was a sharp defense lawyer and won fame as the state’s attorney general during World War I. Win or lose, he refused to hand out campaign literature, kiss babies, or even shake hands if he could avoid it. Known for his boldness, he tackled tough issues head on. He angered many citizens, but his courage and sensibility in handling the road and school issues are worth our study.

Groesbeck, a Republican, was first elected governor in 1920, shortly after road building became a major federal and state activity. Before that, private investors—especially from auto-related companies—largely built such notable routes as the Dixie Highway, from Michigan to Florida, and the Lincoln Highway, from Indiana to California. The makers of tires, batteries, and cars pooled their resources to build these interstate highways and thereby increase the market for auto use. In fact, one could argue that entrepreneurs, not government, should have built more of Michigan’s roads, but Congress had largely closed that option by 1920.

When Groesbeck took office he insisted that if the state were to do the job it must do so with user fees, not property taxes or general revenue. Some Michigan drivers wanted to pass the costs of building roads on to the general population, but the governor opposed it. We must "relieve general property from state taxation for highway purposes," he argued.

That principle of user fees is an important one: Those who benefit most from public goods should pay the most for them. For Groesbeck, that meant signing into existence the state’s first gas tax—two cents per gallon—to have the users of the roads pay for the cost of building them. It also meant removing an existing tax on a car’s horsepower and replacing it with a single tax on weight, which had cars paying much less than what trucks paid.

In paving the roads, Groesbeck was economy-minded. Michigan had been the first state in the union to use concrete, which at that time was superior for paving and cost-effective in the long run. Groesbeck "pulled Michigan out of the mud" and insisted that concrete be used instead of gravel or asphalt. He also put the Highway Department under his Administrative Board, which ended the political patronage system that had overpaid so many builders in the past.

Along with road building, the issue of school choice was hotly debated during Groesbeck’s years as governor. Michigan had been one of the first states to establish public schools, but private schools continued to exist—and even flourish in Catholic and Lutheran neighborhoods. Many parents paid tax dollars to public schools and tuition for a private school because they wanted the freedom of school choice.

In 1920, however, the public school lobby—and those who feared the loyalty of immigrants after World War I—placed an amendment on the ballot to abolish private schools. This amendment, in effect, mandated a public school education for all children in Michigan. Campaigning for governor, Groesbeck denounced this proposal as a violation of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution and urged the Supreme Court of Michigan to strike the proposal from the ballot. The Court turned Groesbeck down, but the voters didn’t: They elected him governor and also squashed the effort to ban private schools.

The school choice issue resurfaced in 1924 during Groesbeck’s campaign for a third two-year term. Another amendment, this one requiring "compulsory attendance at public schools," was placed on the ballot that year by the Public School Defense League. The Ku Klux Klan had gathered strength in Michigan and actively endorsed the effort to ban private schools. The Klan also tried to unseat Governor Groesbeck in the primary by backing James Hamilton, a Canadian-born miner and longshoreman. Hamilton, in his attacks on Groesbeck, became a key spokesman for the amendment to create a public school monopoly on education in Michigan. Meanwhile, the Klan staged large rallies in Detroit and patrolled the country roads nearby.

Governor Groesbeck refused to retreat. He campaigned vigorously for tolerance, individual liberty, and school choice. He defended his road-building program and denounced the Klan. In the primaries, he trounced Hamilton and in the general election Groesbeck stunned his Democrat opponent by more than a two-to-one margin. On his coattails, the public school amendment was crushed with more than 64 percent of the votes cast against it.

Alex Groesbeck governed Michigan during six turbulent years of the 1920s. He was both fair and tolerant. He helped establish the principle of user fees for road building and he protected private schools from those who tried to ban them. He deserves to be remembered by Michiganians today.