School Choice: 1998 is the Year!

Nearly 40 years ago, Alabama Governor George Wallace vowed "Segregation now, segregation forever." Even then, most Americans knew that such a claim was both repulsive and preposterous. The winds of enlightened opinion were sweeping the country inevitably away from its racist past.

In January 1989, East German dictator Erich Honecker declared "The Berlin Wall will still be standing 100 years from now." It lasted another ten months. In hindsight, the forces that brought it down were so powerful and so deeply rooted in the aspirations of millions that the Wall’s demise was indeed inevitable.

These examples are analogous to the situation today facing Americans in general—and Michiganians in particular—in a crucial arena of public policy: education reform. Choice is now the driving force shaping our future and that of our children. The niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Alveda King, identifies school choice as "the most compelling civil rights issue of the decade." When lobbyist Al Short of the Michigan Education Association says that school choice is going nowhere because it is "basically racist in nature," it is reminiscent of the remarks of Wallace and Honecker.

Michigan is at a crossroads in its march toward expanded school choice, and 1998 looms as a year of big decisions. Reforms since 1991 have broadened choice within the public system but the genuine article—choice that involves private schools as well—is blocked by the state’s constitution. Until the constitution is changed by vote of the people, Michigan will fall ever farther behind other innovative states and many of our children who would benefit from additional options will remain stuck in schools they would prefer to escape.

For serious reformers who have been patiently waiting for the right time to present Michigan voters with a ballot initiative on choice, the time is now and 1998 is the year. Here’s why:

Polls show a sea change in public opinion, with more than 65 percent approval for choice ideas like tuition tax credits or vouchers. In ever greater numbers, people are coming to understand that choice represents not only the most fruitful path to school improvement, it represents basic fairness as well. Why should low income citizens be trapped in dysfunctional schools to which they have been assigned by the government, while wealthy citizens and even many teacher union members freely opt for better, private alternatives?

More than ever, people understand that scare talk from vested interests like the Michigan Education Association is empty and self-serving rhetoric. The MEA said charter schools would be a disaster. Far from being a disaster, charter schools have waiting lists of thousands who want to get in. Michiganians are saying with increasing frequency and passion that the children are more important than "the system." They want the best educational opportunities, not a cozy and lucrative system that puts its own preservation ahead of the children.

Full choice is no longer a fuzzy ideal in Michigan. Specific proposals are on the table. In the lead is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Universal Tuition Tax Credit plan. Other plans that may include vouchers are being actively discussed.

Because 1998 is an election year, there is a natural reluctance for the two major parties to favor controversial ballot initiatives. They are wrong if they think thwarting the clamor for choice is the politically safe path to take.

For the Democratic Party, embracing a choice plan like the Universal Tuition Tax Credit presents a golden opportunity. In a single stroke, its leaders can prove to the electorate that the party is not the tool of union bosses. Democrats can once again be genuine champions of the underprivileged, the inner city poor who favor school choice by overwhelming margins. If that angers the six-figure salaried kingpins at the MEA, it will make heroes of party officials elsewhere. A handful of courageous Democratic politicians like Congressman Floyd Flake of New York are already ditching the party line in favor of choice and reaping political rewards as a result.

For the Republican Party, open support for the right choice initiative will energize the rank and file and attract new voters from the minority community. It would force the moneyed interests of the Democrats to divide their cash between fighting Republicans and fighting the choice initiative.

Those Republicans worried that a constitutional amendment on the ballot might jeopardize the governor’s re-election should consider this: The unions and other traditional GOP opponents are going to go all out to defeat the governor, with or without a ballot initiative. They will not be staying home in 1998. The GOP, on the other hand, needs something more than the prospect of a third term to motivate voters to show up. If historic trends as well as most current projections hold, the 1998 mid-term elections favor the party that does not occupy the White House. That may not be the case in 2000 or 2002.

The day is coming when choice will be regarded as the natural order of things and we’ll wonder why we sacrificed generations of children before we got there. What remains to be settled is the question of who or which party will have the courage to step forward and boldly lead us there. 1998 just might answer that question for us.