State Policy Network
State spotlight: Empowering school choice champions in Michigan

Over the last few years, parents around the country have been calling out more and more for school choice. Years of uncertainty around school shutdowns and remote learning and frustration with the ways their students are being taught have pushed more parents to seek out choice.

Michigan is a leader in providing access to public school options outside the district where a student lives. While these education options benefit some students, they are not uniformly available across the state and COVID-related disruptions to students’ learning showed the need for more choice and support for Michigan families.

Enter the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Alongside a group of dedicated Michigan parents, Mackinac helped craft and advance legislation in the Michigan Statehouse that would create Student Opportunity Scholarships. These scholarships would create a separate funding stream for low and middle-income students to pay for private school tuition, academic resources, transportation, tutoring and more.

Opportunity scholarships provide more options

Mackinac’s policy experts worked with parents and state legislators to develop the Student Opportunity Scholarship Program to give parents the flexibility and resources they need while working within Michigan’s current education funding system.

According to the Wall Street Journal Student Opportunity Scholarships would provide, “up to $7,800 for private school tuition or such education expenses as tutoring. The program is mostly for lower- and middle-income families and offers dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return for scholarship donations. The total annual cost of the tax credits is capped at $500 million.”

In addition to money for tuition to a private school, qualifying public school students would have access to up to $500 and qualifying public school students with a disability would have access to up to $1,100 in scholarship money. Families would be able to use the funds for online learning programs, tutoring, extracurricular programs, textbooks or instructional materials, computer hardware, uniforms, standardized test fees, summer school, after-school programs or child care, dual enrollment, transportation, sports fees or career or technical programs.

According to The Center Square, “66% of [Michigan] parents with school-aged children favored some type of education voucher system, while 59% of all adults surveyed agreed.” For families struggling to make ends meet, or parents trying to put together the money for their child’s education needs, scholarships like these can make a world of difference.

Victories and challenges in Michigan

After the bills creating Michigan’s opportunity scholarships were introduced in the Legislature, Mackinac’s team got to work on raising public awareness.

Mackinac’s comprehensive issue campaign focused on activating and energizing a base of support among Michigan families. A recent survey found that while one-third of Michigan parents would prefer to send their children to a private school, only 10% currently have the resources to do so. In addition to providing expert testimony, Mackinac also invited Jessie Bagos to appear before the House Education Committee. Bagos is a Michigan mother of twin boys and a client in Mackinac’s lawsuit challenging the state’s bigoted anti-school aid Blaine Amendment. In her testimony, she expressed her frustration at seeing her sons suffer academically during the public schools’ COVID closures and shift to online learning. Jessie’s story went viral across Michigan media outlets and was also featured in op-eds running in The Detroit News and USA Today.

When it came time for a vote, the campaign was a success: The Michigan Legislature passed the Student Opportunity Scholarships bills.

But—as with most things involving politics—the fight for opportunity scholarships continues.

Despite the majority of Michiganders supporting programs like Student Opportunity Scholarships, the Michigan Governor vetoed the bills in late 2021. Then in 2022, even though hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters signed a petition to override the governor’s veto, politics and bureaucracy prevented the signatures from being processed before the end of the 2021-2022 legislative session. Unfortunately for now, the veto will stand.

Michigan families know the benefits that can come from school choice programs. But there are still too many families without the options or resources to properly educate their student. And as Mackinac’s Director of Public Relations, Holly Wetzel says, “Students deserve to have an education that best matches their needs. Student Opportunity Scholarships would help ease the financial burden of educational expenses that many families face, whether that be assisting with the cost of tuition, tutoring services, special-needs therapies, or even supplemental instruction materials.”

It can be heartbreaking when politics gets in the way of real, positive policy solutions—especially when those policy solutions help children. But the fight for Student Opportunity Scholarships isn’t over and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy will continue to fight for more choice and more resources for Michigan families.

Categories: News
Organization: State Policy Network