In the three decades of the modern school choice movement, 2021 has no rival. This Year of Educational Choice has broadened opportunities for students and families more than any other. But these opportunities have not penetrated everywhere. Without a bold strategy, Michigan is one place where students and families will be left in the dust.
So far this year, 13 states have adopted a total of 18 laws that create or expand choice programs. That includes two states that enacted large-scale programs as their first forays into choice: West Virginia’s expansive Hope Scholarships and Kentucky’s Education Opportunity Accounts. New Hampshire, which already offers some students tax-credit scholarships, could soon surpass West Virginia if the state’s Legislature approves making Education Freedom Accounts available to every student.
Notably, all three of these state’s programs meet many students at their point of need. The funds in these different education savings accounts will be available for a host of materials and services that advance children’s learning, not just private school tuition payments. The ESA policy was pioneered in places like Arizona and Florida to help address the unique needs of students with disabilities, but it is now being deployed to also meet the needs of many other children who can thrive outside the one-size-fits-all, classroom model.
With each new development in other states, Michigan becomes further isolated from the benefits of offering parents full education opportunities, even as students and families here too have endured pandemic-related learning frustrations. Some families, with the means to do so, have enrolled their children in private schools, which in many parts of the state have provided more consistent and reliable in-person education.
Even more switched to homeschooling. To the extent Michigan’s trends mirror national trends, Black and Hispanic parents have been most likely to make this transition. If the state offered support for private education options, how many more African American families would be prepared to join the new Engaged Detroit homeschooling network?
The difficulty with expanding such opportunities comes from the egregious anti-aid provision in Michigan’s constitution, a harmful overreach approved by the state’s voters 50 years ago. In one of the few truly bright spots of 2020, the United States Supreme Court’s Espinoza ruling struck down more than 30 states’ “Blaine amendments” that worked to restrict educational choice.
Those amendments were found unconstitutional because they specifically prohibited financial support for parents seeking religious schooling options, a violation of the First Amendment. But the effects of that ruling didn’t reach Michigan, because our constitution prohibits support for all and any type of private schooling, religious or not.
Michigan’s ban on supporting private education options does not apply to federal funds, however. State lawmakers have the discretion to be creative in allocating a portion of the windfall of federal education dollars that are coming to Michigan as a result of COVID-19 relief. Yet in the current political environment, even small attempts have faltered. In late March, for instance, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed a $10 million federal allocation legislators approved to reimburse parents for summer school expenses.
There is still some hope for a share of federal funds to directly reach students and families who need help making up for lost learning time resulting from school closures and low-quality virtual schooling. Senate Bill 448, which would provide $55 million in limited scholarships to families of young, struggling readers has been introduced but still awaits a hearing.
Reading scholarships would be a step forward. Yet looking at the growing host of states embracing choice around us, Michigan families may dare to dream of bigger educational opportunities on the horizon. Overcoming our state’s constitutional barrier is a daunting prospect, but that doesn’t lessen the need to face down the challenge.
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