This article originally appeared in the Education Week on April 11, 2001 at

By Debra Viadero

The Goldwater Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, two state-based think tanks that share similar agendas, announced plans last week to join forces on education issues. Both research groups have made a name for themselves in the field through their advocacy of free-market approaches to improving education.

Based in Phoenix, the Goldwater Institute in the 1990s provided some of the brainpower behind the creation of charter schools, as well as tax credits for donations to funds that provide private-school scholarships in that state. Now, with 400 charter schools, Arizona has more such schools than any other state. And the Goldwater Institute's former director, Jeff Flake, has gone on to represent the state as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Midland, Mich.- based Mackinac Center, meanwhile, proposed a "universal tuition tax credit" in 1997. The think tank over the years has also called for ending compulsory membership in teachers' unions, eliminating busing as a desegregation tool, and raising the cap on charter schools in Michigan—albeit with less success than its Arizona counterpart."Having Goldwater and Mackinac work more closely together creates a synergy that neither organization by itself can do," said Darcy A. Olsen, the director of education and child policy for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington. "If you combine ideas and resources, you're going to be far better off than if everybody is working alone."

Less Than Success?

But critics contend the collaboration is more precisely aimed at shoring up pro-choice forces in Michigan, where a ballot proposal to provide vouchers for students in failing school districts was soundly defeated in last November's elections. Measures to raise the cap on the number of charter schools sponsored by Michigan universities have stalled through the past two legislative sessions.

"I would suspect the fact that they are merging means a recognition that Mackinac hasn't been all that successful here," said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, the communications director for the Michigan Education Association, which fought the voucher initiative. "We are hearing from more and more people who dismiss everything the Mackinac Center puts out as propaganda."

As part of the new arrangement, both centers will maintain their separate headquarters and identities.

However, the Mackinac Center, which is the larger of the two groups with 26 employees, does indeed plan to borrow from the Goldwater Institute's work on education tax credits and charter schools to pursue the same strategies in Michigan.

The plan also calls for Mary Gifford, the director of the Goldwater Institute's Center for Market-Based Education, to join the Mackinac Center this month to set up a statewide network to help with fund raising, promotion, and research for the Michigan center.

The two centers will also marshal resources to replicate studies in both states.

"The Goldwater Institute and the Mackinac Center ... are pioneering an approach to leverage the undeniable power of great ideas," Christopher Smith, the executive director of the Arizona institute said in a written announcement. "In this case, one plus one will add up to more than two."