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Research & Commentary: Education Choice is a Popular Policy in Michigan

September 23, 2016

Mackinac Center Survey Finds Large Majorities Favor ESAs, Tax Credit Scholarships

A new survey released in August 2016 by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MC) shows education choice programs continue to be very popular in the Wolverine State. Conducted by Marketing Resource Group, the survey of 800 likely voters found 57 percent of respondents are in favor of creating a tax credit scholarship program, and 55 percent said they support education savings accounts (ESAs).

Tax credit scholarships (TCS) grant businesses tax credits in exchange for donations supporting non-profit scholarship programs for students to attend private schools. A TCS differs from other school choice options in two significant ways. First, the money a TCS uses comes entirely from private sources. This allows a TCS program to avoid state or federal prohibitions against sending money to religious institutions. Second, these programs offer the “cleanest” school choice option, meaning the one with the least burdensome government regulations, because they are not funded by tax collections. Currently, TCS programs are the most popular form of private school choice in the country. According to EdChoice, 16 states currently offer 20 different TCS programs.

ESAs deposit state per-pupil education spending into an account that parents control, letting them choose how to spend their child’s education dollars among different options such as online and in-person classes, tutoring, and textbooks, and to save some for future college expenses. ESAs have two advantages over the typical voucher program, says report author Matthew Ladner: greater freedom for families, and fewer state constitutional barriers. The greater freedom and flexibility improve on the cost and quality benefits vouchers offer.

Seventy-seven percent of the respondents in the MC survey said they believe tax credit scholarships should be available for students with special needs, 70 percent said they should be made available to low-income students, and 62 percent said they should be made available to all students attending a failing public school. Respondents who identified as a Republican or African-American were the most likely to support the program, with 67 percent and 62 percent, respectively, supporting TCS in this poll. Fifty-two percent of registered Independents also supported the establishment of TCS.

Republicans and African-Americans were also the most likely respondents to support ESAs. Sixty-four percent of African-Americans and 57 percent of Republicans told pollsters they were in favor of ESAs. These savings accounts also received 47 percent support from union households, 55 percent support from registered Democrats, and 54 percent support from Independents.

Ben DeGrow, education policy director at MC, put out a statement coinciding with the release of the results, in which he said, “It’s reassuring to see an overwhelming majority of Michigan voters support the idea that parents should be free to direct their child’s education. Lawmakers should take note that, despite the onslaught of attacks on educational freedom in Michigan, public opinion is very much in favor of school choice.”

Currently, education choice in Michigan is severely limited. No private school choice program is in place, and according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, only 9 percent of Michigan students were enrolled in a public charter school in the 2014­­–15 school year, despite evidence the public schools in the state are failing to teach and prepare their students adequately.

“The findings of these surveys show that Michigan voters, especially minority voters, want educational choice and reject the one-size-fits-all model of our traditional public school system,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, in another statement accompanying the release of the survey. “As we grapple with failing schools and calls for more and more funding, we should consider school choice options that have proven track records of success and will certainly garner public support.”

Only 34 percent of Michigan 4th graders and 29 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only 29 percent of 4th graders and 32 percent of 8th graders tested proficient in reading. These results show Michigan’s public school system is failing to educate roughly seven out of 10 students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics. Further, 53 percent of survey respondents gave Michigan public schools a grade of either C, D, or F.

Michigan’s sub-standard performance on NAEP and parents unhappiness with the public school status quo underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Too many public schools in Michigan are failing to prepare students for productive lives adequately. Parents should be allowed to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially if that choice is a private religious or secular school.

While the passage of tax credit scholarships would be a good start for Michigan, the passage of a universal ESA bill would be a much better strategy for remedying Michigan’s dismal record of failing to educate its children. The goal should be to allow every parent to choose, require every school to compete, and give every child an opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and education choice programs and policy ideas in general.

Full School Choice Tracking Survey 2016
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/full-school-choice-tracking-survey-2016
This survey from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy finds large majorities of likely voters in Michigan are in favor of numerous school choice options, including tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and charter schools.

Ten Principles of School Choice
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/ten-principles-of-school-choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support the creation of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders with a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet, and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/a-win-win-solution-the-empirical-evidence-on-school-choice-fourth-edition?source=policybot
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

2016/17 School Choice Report Card
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/201617-school-choice-report-card
This report card published by the American Federation for Children scores 27 active non-special-needs voucher, scholarship tax credit, and education savings account programs against ideal standards for program quality. The report is an excellent tool policymakers and researchers can use to help improve education programs and maximize student participation. 

The ABCs of School Choice – 2016 Edition
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-abcs-of-school-choice---2016-edition?source=policybot
Published by EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, The ABCs of School Choice is a comprehensive, data-rich guide to every private school choice program in the United States. This publication, which is updated annually, may not reflect developments past January 25, 2016.

Taking Credit for Education: How to Fund Education Savings Accounts through Tax Credits
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/taking-credit-for-education-how-to-fund-education-savings-accounts-through-tax-credits?source=policybot
This Cato Institute paper shows how legislators can design an education savings account (ESA) that is privately funded through tax-credit-eligible contributions from taxpayers, similar to tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in states across the country. Tax-credit-funded ESAs would empower families with more educational options while enhancing accountability and refraining from coercing anyone to financially support ideas they oppose. Because they are funded through voluntary contributions, rather than public funds, tax-credit scholarships have been found by the U.S. Supreme Court and by every state supreme court that has considered the issue to be within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions. In states that have Blaine amendments, which greatly restrict the ability of lawmakers to create some school choice programs, tax-credit ESAs could be a lifeline to families in need.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-fiscal-effects-of-school-choice-programs-on-public-school-districts?source=policybot
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-legal-landscape-of-parental-choice-policy?source=policybot
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. These programs raise other important legal questions, which fall into four categories: the scope of students’ rights to an education and parents’ rights to choose their children’s schools; state constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but AEI also says these questions create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale up existing programs and expand program options.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/wm727.cfm 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

How School Choice Can Create Jobs
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/how-school-choice-can-create-jobs?source=policybot
Examining five South Carolina counties, Sven R. Larson found school choice programs were associated with gains of up to 25 percent in youth self-employment. Larson writes, “School Choice raises academic achievement and reduces the problems and costs associated with high school dropouts. But it also has a decisively positive impact on youth entrepreneurship and could provide a critical boost for the economies of poor, rural counties.”

 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News at http://news.heartland.org/education, The Heartland Institute’s website at http://heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Heartland Institute State Government Relations Manager Nathan Makla at nmakla@heartland.org or 312/377-4000.

Author
Tim Benson joined The Heartland Institute in September 2015 as a policy analyst in the Government Relations Department.
TBenson@heartland.org @BenceAthwart