Editorial: Roadblocks ahead for Michigan school choice

The Detroit News

Don’t get too excited about the possibility of expanded school choice in Michigan — at least not yet. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could break down barriers to educational freedom, even in this state. But plenty of roadblocks remain, regardless of how the court rules.

At the heart of the case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, is whether states are violating constitutional religious or equal protection clauses when they prevent or overturn neutral student-aid programs that offer families the option to choose a religious school.

The single mother in the case took advantage of Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income families to send her two daughters to a Christian school. That program was later overturned because it conflicted with the state’s Blaine amendment blocking public funding for religious schools.

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could break down barriers to educational freedom.

The Supreme Court in 2002 already stated neutral school choice programs are constitutional, but this case delves into what lengths states can take to exclude them. Programs are neutral when parents choose the school, rather than the state. 

Teachers unions are on edge. In a statement, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García claimed the suit is an attempt to “dismantle neighborhood public schools.” 

While unions are concerned about protecting their monopoly on education, the case is about what’s best for individual students.

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Michigan, along with 36 other states, have Blaine amendments that block state dollars from reaching private schools. Michigan’s is the worst of the bunch, with language blocking any aid — direct or indirect. That constitutional amendment was added in 1970, and has resulted in preventing the state from participating in voucher or tax-credit programs available in more than half the states. 

Michigan parents can’t even tap 529 college savings accounts for private K-12 expenses, even though the 2017 federal tax cut legislation allowed it, since there are some state tax benefits at stake. 

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, attended the one-hour oral arguments and says he left the High Court feeling positive that justices would deliver a win for school choice. The Mackinac Center submitted a brief in support of the petitioners, noting how Detroit students — where the district public schools are the worst in the country — could benefit from more options such as Detroit Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic school that serves low-income families in the city. 

Yet even if the court rules Blaine amendments are unconstitutional, it’s not as if broader school choice will descend on Michigan. It will take legislation or a ballot proposal to create choice programs, whether tax-credit scholarships or vouchers. 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is heavily supported by teachers unions, is not likely to sign such legislation. 

Former GOP state Rep. Tim Kelly, an avid school choice supporter, understands well the limitations of Michigan’s Blaine amendment. Many of his good ideas were shot down because of constitutional conflicts. He’s optimistic that broader choice will arrive in Michigan “eventually.”

If the court overturns these constitutional restrictions, it will remove the largest barrier to educational freedom in this state.