By Thomas Boensch
Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council
The future of public and private education in Michigan will soon be at a crossroads. Will we be able to have real choices for our children's education? Or will our public and private schools be blended into an academic and moral hodgepodge that will blur the critical distinctions between both institutions?
The Michigan Constitution guarantees a free public education for all Michigan children. However, the constitution prohibits using public taxpayer funds, either director or indirectly, to support private schools.
Currently, there is an initiative underway to eliminate Michigan's constitutional ban on using public tax money to fund private and religious schools. It appears the current petition effort will result in a referendum on the November ballot asking Michigan voters to remove this constitutional prohibition.
Using public tax dollars to finance a school voucher program will redefine both public and private education funding.
Many of our hard-working members have children in public schools. The state of Michigan guarantees these taxpayers a proper public education for their children funded by tax revenue.
Many other of our hard-working members send their children to private or religious schools. These parents make many financial sacrifices to ensure that their children receive an education according to the parent's discretion. These schools are chosen because of the teachings and codes of conduct they impart on their students.
Additionally, many of our other hard-working members have no children in either of these schools. They pay taxes to the state and to local school districts to support public education. They may contribute financial aid to support private schools through their church or by direct voluntary contributions.
In the end, what do school vouchers mean to us?
According to research, if a substantial number of students in school districts use vouchers, the economic impact on public education will be negative. If public schools serve smaller and smaller proportions of school-age children, they will lose not only millions of dollars in state funding, they will also experience dwindling public support for local funding.
The resources for public schools will diminish as more taxpayer money is diverted to private and religious schools. If public schools lose a majority of students, and consequently a majority of state funding, the districts will be faced with the same situation they had prior to 1994 and "Proposal D", which resulted in the local district millage funding most of the annual budget.
The solutions will include a host of unappealing options: closing schools and reducing choices, raising operating millages, paying off bonds levied for buildings that are no longer used, increasing the teacher-to-student ratio, decreasing staff development, cutting programs such as sports, arts and science and further threatening new technology and classroom equipment
The contrast between how private and religious schools operate compared to public schools is an important distinction. Private schools are free to operate as they wish and are subject to little or no public oversight. Public schools are democratically controlled and must follow publicly determined rules regarding admissions, special-education students, teacher qualifications, curriculum, testing, and information disclosure.
A recent U.S. Department of Education report states that private and religious schools are unlikely to participate in a voucher program that would require them to meet accountability standards in key policy areas such as admissions, student testing, curriculum and religious training.
The reports summarizes that a regulated voucher system would erode the autonomy and independence of private and religious schools. The report also indicates that an unregulated vouchers system may preserve private and religious autonomy, but will not allow taxpayers to determine how their tax dollars are spent.
A recent poll shows that the public would expect private and religious schools that received public dollars to be regulated and held accountable for the use of these dollars, in effect, turning them into public schools.
In a national survey of 1,000 adults, 75% agreed that "private or church-related schools that accept government tuition payments should be accountable to the state in the way public schools are accountable." The study demonstrates that if private and religious schools have an opportunity to accept vouchers, the school's governing principles will be drastically changed. Those changes will have a direct impact on the quality of education and admissions policies at private and religious schools.
If vouchers are approved, sweeping changes will begin to occur in private and religious schools. Right now, these schools have almost complete independence with regard to who they teach, what they teach, how they teach, how they measure student achievement, how they handle their finances and what information they disclose to parents and the public. Are they willing to provide the accountability necessary for public oversight?
As the public debate continues, the Council will keep you informed on this important election decision.