Column: How the feds could help advance school choice

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For the first time in decades, poor and working families in Michigan have a glimmer of hope to get needed support for private school tuition.

To date, the state constitution has placed a roadblock before them. But the new Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have stirred a great deal of interest in providing a federal airlift for students to get over that barricade.

Trump’s opening gambit is a $250 million proposal to expand private school choice. The amount is a tiny drop in the nation’s $600 billion bucket of annual K-12 education spending. Nevertheless, Michigan could be well-positioned to benefit, depending on what such a program would look like.

Unfortunately, the Beltway partisan divide has only grown since the days some congressional Democrats provided valuable support to Washington, D.C.’s voucher program. One type of program has a plausible chance of passing, since it only requires a majority vote in the Senate: tax credit-funded tuition scholarships. Under such a program, contributors to K-12 scholarship organizations could write their donation off their federal tax bill. This strong incentive encourages more donations. More donations means more scholarships for students who want a privately provided education but can’t afford one. The approach fosters community partnerships between families, schools, nonprofits and their donors.

The Mackinac Center has long advocated for a similar state-level program: the universal tuition tax credit. Since Mackinac advocated the policy, 17 other states have adopted some version of tax credit scholarships. More than a quarter million low- and middle-income students in these states today receive scholarships to attend private schools.

Nowhere have tax credit scholarships been more closely studied than Florida, where 100,000 students currently benefit. The poor, low-performing students who enter the program end up making as much annual academic progress as all students nationally. Further, the threat of losing students to a private school has resulted in real improvements to neighboring public schools. And scholarship parents are overwhelmingly satisfied with their new options.

Such a program fails to pass muster, however, under Michigan’s uniquely restrictive constitution. The provision added by a 1970 ballot initiative explicitly prevents the state Legislature from appropriating funds or granting tax benefits that would support a student enrolling in any private school, even nonreligious ones. According to a plain reading of the amendment, though, the prohibition doesn’t apply to an expanded federal tax benefit.

Backers of existing tax credit programs in other states have expressed legitimate concerns that a federal program, no matter how well-intentioned, might hamper the work they are already doing. One fear is that a federal program’s requirements might interfere with an organization’s specific mission or clash with the intent of current donors who are already improving opportunities for many children.

More concerning for Michigan are fears that a future administration hostile to school choice might use its power to burden or restrict schools serving student beneficiaries. Yet for many families struggling to get a son or daughter the best education possible, that risk might be worth taking. Without voters changing the Michigan Constitution, the alternatives would be a federal tax credit program or no new options for low- and middle-income families.

Still, the current administration appears wary of the danger of trying to impose a plan. DeVos recently backed giving states an option. But she added, “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

While Washington debates, Michigan supporters of educational choice and opportunity ought to prepare for the possibility of success. Civic and business leaders should explore the creation of a charitable scholarship organization. And state lawmakers may need to brace for pressure from interest groups that would oppose Michigan opting into a program or would undermine reasonable, helpful oversight of scholarship organizations.

Other program details will matter, too. Michigan communities would benefit most from making it as easy as possible for interested donors to give to such scholarship-granting organizations. The program also should focus on helping as many poor and working-class families who would like to participate as possible. Transparency will also be important.

Many students need safer and more suitable learning options. If our state can’t help open those doors, maybe a federal option can.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.