School vouchers can be a problem, particularly for rural areas

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LANSING — The prospect of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school students remains an issue, especially for rural areas, despite the repeated failure of advocates to create such a program.

Former US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos of Grand Rapids has strongly, but unsuccessfully, supported Michigan’s school choice programs, including education vouchers.

Although Democrats hold majorities in the state legislature, groups like the Great Lakes Education Project, which DeVos founded, are pushing for more school choice options beyond vouchers.

There was a push in 2000 for vouchers, which would transfer dollars to families for private schools, but the state constitution prohibits any public funds from being used for any non-public school expenses. Other efforts failed, most recently a scholarship fund from taxpayer credits and donated dollars.

According to Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, vouchers remain a timely problem and that they “will greatly harm rural communities because we have no other options for them.”

If public tax money is spent on vouchers, Herbart said, a lot of the money will go to students who are already paying to attend private schools.

“You now have less money to give to public schools because you’re taking it away and putting it into private entities,” Herbart said.

A 2022 report from the Michigan State University College of Education said state policymakers have ignored the educational needs and conditions of rural school districts over the past two decades.

The report concluded that education policy changes, including school choice, had a “categorical urban focus”.

School selection measures, such as vouchers, will fail in rural areas, said Doug Pratt, the union’s director of public affairs.

“Investing in community schools is a much better policy approach than subsidizing substandard alternatives,” Pratt said.

The Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools advocates on behalf of private schools to support school choice. One aspect is coupons, according to Director of Communications and Partnerships, Molly Cole.

Cole said the vouchers will give parents the chance to choose where their children go to school, regardless of location or finances.

“Both students and parents would benefit from a voucher program or some other mechanism that allows for more choice in education,” Cole said.

“In Michigan, unless you have the financial means to pay for private education, you are limited to where you can go to school based on your zip code,” she said.

Cole said transportation can be a barrier for families looking to religious and other private schools, and vouchers can make transportation more accessible.

Herbart said state money is important because many rural areas face problems such as technology needs, limited broadband access and low teacher salaries. Transportation costs are also high, given the distance many students live from their schools.

“These people who need fleets of buses are losing dollars for whatever reason, and they still need those buses,” Herbart said.

Cole said the state falls short in providing “full choice for all families.”

Stumbled by vouchers, advocates of Choice Schools say they are now pushing for a scholarship fund for private schoolchildren with tax credits for individual and corporate donors. They also called for the licensing of education savings accounts.

In 2021, when Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate, legislatures have passed such a program, but Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed the legislation.

And last year, DeVos failed to get two proposals for the “Let MI Kids Learn” legislative initiative before lawmakers to allow such programs.

Tax credits, special grants and education savings accounts will give parents flexibility in choosing schools, said Beth Dishon, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project.

“There are a lot of other programs that can serve the same purpose (such as vouchers) to help kids get extra money to go to a different school or get different educational opportunities,” she said.