The next battle in Michigan we will more than likely have to decide – one more time – is the issue of whether tax dollars intended for public education should be allowed to be used through some type of voucher system so parents can choose to send their children to private (including parochial) schools.
We have decided this issue twice before, in 1978 and again in 2000, when voters rejected a change to the Michigan Constitution that would have wiped out a 1970 voter-approved amendment barring private or religious schools from receiving public tax revenue. In the 2000 effort, voters turned down by a margin of 69 to 31 percent, the voucher system proposal that would have allowed for $3,500 of public school funding to follow a student to a private or parochial school.
Interestingly enough, it was rejected in Oakland County and it was also defeated in Wayne County, 72-28 percent. Even in the Detroit black community, the voucher question lost basically by a four-to-one margin and among Catholics, a 64-36 percent loss, despite the power of the pulpit where priests urged parishioners to support it and the fact that the Archdiocese of Detroit poured a reported $2 million to back the proposal.
As of this writing, 37 states have prohibitions against use of tax dollars to attend religious schools.
Public sentiment in 16-18 years could have changed but I consider it unlikely when the public school systems in Michigan are scrapping for dollars now both for the classroom and to fund legacy retirement obligations made decades ago before school administrators realized the long-term impact that has come home to roost.
The issue is likely to surface on the radar and at the ballot box in the short-term future because, as this issue went to press, Betsy DeVos, a member of the Donor Class in Michigan and a prime mover behind much of what you see here and in other states in terms of charter schools or academies, was being interviewed by members of the U.S. Senate for possible appointment to be the Secretary of Education in the new administration. Donald Trump has promised during the 2016 campaign to create a $20 billion block grant program to fund a charter and private school choice (i.e. voucher) program for what he has termed as “poor” children. As expected from an official who generally communicates in 140 character Twitter pronouncements, no other details have been provided, although it has been suggested that the vouchers could be worth around $12,000 per student. No word on whether this money would come out of the coffers that now benefit the public schools in the nation.
Before I go any further, I should flag readers that I spent from first through fourth grade in a parochial school in Detroit, then grades 10-12 getting a parochial education – the latter years my choice and tuition was paid from my summer lawn mowing jobs, when the suburban (Utica) public school district was so overcrowded that we were basically on a half-day schedule, part of which was spent being bused to other school buildings for class. Throw in increasing violence in what then was the only high school and that’s all it took to motivate me to find an alternative.
We also provided a private school education for our two sons, in large part to shelter them from any possible blow back in the local public school district where we lived, given the nature of my work and my periodic published opposition to some less than deserving – let alone never ending – school millage proposals in the pre-Proposal A period in Michigan, all of which got pinned on the bulletin board in the teachers’ lounge. Add to that the quality of education in our Oakland County school district at the time was, to put it mildly, still evolving, as was the district’s student population that thought conflict resolution meant a rumble in some cornfield after school. The decision was an easy one to make.
So of all people, I get the varied reasons people might have for sending their children to private and parochial schools and certainly don’t fault anyone – unless they plan to do it on my tax dollar.
Let’s remind ourselves that when our founding fathers set up this country, one of the things they provided was free education, a direct rejection of what they had witnessed in Europe where only the members of the wealthy class got an education.
But let’s get back to Betsy DeVos, wife of Dick DeVos, he of the Amway company fortune and she of her own family auto-related wealth, much of which – many millions – has been used to add to the narrative that has allowed the west Michigan power brokers to influence much of what you see happening in Lansing nowadays on a host of farther right litmus social issues.
Betsy DeVos has not restricted her political donations to just Michigan lawmakers but the largess has found its way into the pockets of lawmakers from other states when it comes to voting on issues related to education “reform” – the charter school and school voucher movement.
In terms of political contributions to Michigan pols, the DeVos family has been very generous when they want to push their viewpoint relative to school choice, which is certainly their right. There is a direct correlation between their political donations and how many lawmakers voted on issues related to a cap (no longer) on the number of charter schools in the state and the slowness in dealing with legislation providing for oversight and accountability on the charter schools or academies. And amidst all of this, Betsy DeVos has been forthcoming that she clearly expects a return on her dollar when it comes to backing state lawmakers.
Assuming the U.S. Senate – controlled by Republicans – approves of the DeVos appointment, we will be left with a Secretary of Education who often intertwines her Christian religious views with what she sees as the role of education for the future. Someone who brings no formal training or experience in the classroom. Someone on a mission to allow, through vouchers, public tax dollars to move with students to private (including parochial) schools. And someone who wants the states to determine educational standards, with no national requirements.
Sorry, that is not the solution to any of the problems facing the public education system in the nation or in Michigan which I think must be defended against any further erosion on the financial side. Additionally, I buy into the argument that a free-market approach allowing parents to take public tax dollars for children to attend private and parochial schools could more than likely leave the public school system with the students who are harder to educate because they are not likely to be accepted by private and parochial schools. The result would be an education system where class and social distinctions would be even more pronounced than they are now.
Although my children are no longer in school, I still feel that I, along with everyone else in the local area, have a dog in this fight. Public schools are a critical component in the fabric of local communities. So I am ready for round three in this battle if that’s what it takes.