Labor Voices: Keep state money in public schools

Steven Cook

The Michigan Constitution is very clear: “No public monies shall be appropriated by the Legislature to aid any private, denominational or other nonpublic school.”

Yet that strong prohibition did not stop the Michigan Legislature from appropriating $2.5 million for private schools in 2016 and inserting similar funding in the proposed budget for next year. Last month, the Council About Parochiad filed suit against the state for violating the Michigan constitution.

This unlawful attempt to divert public K-12 tax dollars to private and religious schools should concern all citizens. Public schools educate the vast majority of Michigan students, even as Republican lawmakers continue to funnel scarce resources to the private sector. And public districts across the state are still attempting to recover from the $1 billion funding cut early in Gov. Snyder’s tenure.

Our state’s dramatic disinvestment in public schools is well documented in two recent studies: the Governor’s 21st Century Education Committee report and the school funding study commissioned by the legislature, which issued its report last fall.

Advocates for allowing public tax dollars to flow to private and religious schools have been emboldened by the strong support of vouchers voiced by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. She led the effort to pass a ballot initiative in 2000 which would have amended the Michigan Constitution to permit vouchers, allowing tax dollars to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected that initiative, with 68 percent voting “no.”

However, backdoor schemes are being floated to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on public dollars going to private schools. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to which DeVos is a donor, is advocating the establishment of Universal Tuition Tax Credits for tuition paid at private/religious schools. Some have referred to it as a “money-laundered voucher scheme” which has the added benefit of confusing it with tuition tax credits that are currently allowed for higher education expenses. Unfortunately for proponents of this scheme, the Michigan constitution expressly prohibits aid to private schools in the form of “credits, tax benefits, exemptions or deductions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council, another conservative group, is pushing state legislatures to enact education savings accounts. Once again, the intent is to intentionally confuse taxpayers by conflating vouchers with existing education savings accounts that parents use to save for their child’s college tuition. The ALEC version diverts the state per-pupil foundation grant to savings accounts that parents could then use for tuition at private/religious K-12 schools or homeschooling.

One thing is clear: No matter what euphemisms these groups employ, their schemes to send public tax dollars to private schools violate the Michigan Constitution — as do the legislature’s recent budget appropriations.

It is also clear that proponents want to avoid using the term “voucher” — and for good reason. In addition to the strong “no” vote Michigan voters sent in opposing vouchers in 2000, a number of recent studies have shown no evidence that school vouchers provide students with a significant academic advantage. In his 2017 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Stanford professor Martin Carnoy cites studies of voucher programs in several U.S. cities and the states of Florida, Indiana and Louisiana which found “limited improvements at best” in student achievement and school district performance. In Milwaukee, the second largest and longest running U.S. voucher program, the study found “no solid evidence of student gains.”

Whether by vouchers or any other scheme, sending public tax dollars to private/religious schools is not only a violation of Michigan’s constitution, it is a failed strategy to improve student performance.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.