Jacques: Michigan is missing out on true school choice

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The University of Detroit Jesuit High School announced this week it will begin construction on a new state-of-the-art facility for the in-demand subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.

The school, which only enrolls boys, has been a bedrock of the city for more than 130 years, and it’s one of the few Catholic schools that have stayed in Detroit.

As Mayor Mike Duggan said at the event: “I applaud U of D Jesuit’s commitment to providing young men in the city of Detroit with access to a world-class education and the opportunity to make a difference for the rest of their lives.”

The mayor is right, but of the 900 students that attend the Jesuit High School and Academy, only 20 percent live in Detroit. Just think how many more Detroit students could enjoy attending this kind of school if Michigan allowed public dollars to flow in some fashion to private schools.

That’s not a possibility now because the state has one of the most restrictive constitutional amendments in America related to school vouchers.

So while at least 20 states now have some kind of publicly-funded private school option for families, including some of this state’s closest neighbors, Michigan remains out of the loop. At a time when the state persistently lags the rest of the U.S. in its test scores—especially schools in Detroit—families should have as many choices as possible for ensuring their children get a good education.

The state constitution, amended in 1970 to block private school funding and upheld by voters in 2000, specifically says vouchers and tax credits for nonpublic schools are out of the question. But some education reform advocates in Michigan are considering a push for the latest school choice innovation: education savings accounts.

These accounts have been in the news lately, as Nevada recently passed the most sweeping ESA program in the country—opening the savings accounts to every student in the state.

Other states that have used them, like Arizona and Florida, allocate the accounts on a more restricted basis, such as for special needs students or those attending failing schools.

The ESA model works much like a health savings account, with the state placing the per-student allowance into an account that parents can access how they choose.

And this model has stood up to court challenges, even in states with amendments that block vouchers.

That’s because the savings accounts give parents the direct ability to handpick their child’s education options, from classes at a local public school to tuition at a private school.

“It enables parents to be contractors,” says Lindsey Burke, education policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.

But Michigan’s amendment goes further than the other 37 states that prevent vouchers. It blocks “any payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deduction, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property, directly or indirectly” for use at a private school.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, is working to spearhead an effort to introduce the ESA option in Michigan as a narrow carve-out for students with special needs. His organization is currently sorting through the legal challenges such legislation would inevitably face, but Naeyaert thinks this is the best option the state has to work around its restrictive anti-choice amendment.

It could also open doors for more sweeping changes down the road. Naeyaert believes that if these savings accounts would hold up in court, then the voucher issue could be brought back to voters. A voter-approved amendment is necessary to alter the state constitution.

“This would be laying the groundwork for elimination at the ballot box,” Naeyaert says.

The state already allows shared-time instruction, which as the Citizens Research Council of Michigan has pointed out provides public funding for nonpublic school students to take elective courses at public schools. So some crossover exists now.

Education savings accounts are a long shot in Michigan, but given their track record in other states, it’s worth a try.

“They are such a robust option,” Burke says.