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Opinion | I study school choice, and DeVos plan would hurt Michigan kids

It’s tax season, and chances are if you live in one of the half of all American households that donate to charity, you’re thinking again about the donations you’ve made over the last year, as well as any other money you’ve set aside as an investment for the future. What would you think if you learned that one of the charities you’ve given to actually hurt rather than helped the people it was supposed to serve? What would you do if you learned you had invested in a failing company?

Josh Cowen
Josh Cowen is professor of education policy at Michigan State University. (Courtesy photo)

The new Betsy DeVos-backed proposal Let MI Kids Learn would do just that. The proposal is a new ballot initiative that would change Michigan’s tax laws to create tax credits for donors who support, among other things, private school tuition modeled after school voucher programs across the country.  Supporters of the plan frame their efforts as opportunities for parents to make educational decisions instead of state or other governmental entities. Today in Michigan, this plan requires half a million voter signatures to move forward as a concrete proposal.

I’ve spent more than 15 years evaluating school choice all over the country, and found both good and not-so-good results from choice programs nationwide. I’m not known for being an advocate for or against school choice. I say: let’s do more of whatever works for kids.

And that’s the problem: programs like Let MI Kids Learn don’t work. You’ll hear a lot in the coming months about whether such tax schemes do or don’t pass constitutional muster, and the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to further allow public money in support of private religious schools. But like I tell my kids: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

These programs have generally been massively harmful to academic growth for poor children in places like Indiana, Ohio, Washington, DC, and Louisiana. The Louisiana Scholarship Program, for example, increased the likelihood of failing math by almost 50 percent, with large negative effects in reading, science and social studies as well. These are some of the biggest effects of public policy that education researchers have seen in recent years, negative or positive!

Some say that judging programs like the DeVos proposal by test scores is unfair, because parents care about more than just test scores. That last part is true. I’ve been to dozens of private schools over the years to study them, and many promise to teach kids character, discipline, and in some cases moral or religious values. But I’ve never seen any of those schools tell parents that the catch is that kids may fail math or reading, or score among the state’s worst in science.

What’s more, conservative policymakers also promote other programs — like Michigan’s own Read by Grade Three law, which requires schools to retain third graders with low reading scores — that make decisions directly based on exams. If test scores tell us enough to fail Michigan third graders, they certainly tell us enough to fail the DeVos tuition plan.

You might also hear that this is partly about pandemic learning loss. That’s a real thing — we know children all over the country have suffered substantial declines and will continue to do so. But how do we know that? Because tests like M-STEP tell us so — something that proposal organizers admit on their own website. Arguing that we need to fix learning loss with policies that themselves increase math learning loss is like suggesting bleach as cure for COVID. We don’t want to hurt kids further by offering failed solutions to new problems.

Finally, Michigan already offers one of the most robust systems of parental choice in the country. In addition to their neighborhood schools, our families can choose charter schools and enrollment opportunities in other districts via Schools of Choice. More than one in five Michigan kids already make those choices. And although I personally wouldn’t point to Michigan’s charter system as the best available evidence that charters work, we do have some indication from the University of Michigan that charters propel learning gains in math.

Let MI Kids Learn is a proposal that packages several good ideas — like support for tutoring, transportation, and after school programs — around one spectacularly bad one: tuition support for private schools. 

As an expert on school choice, I could easily get behind public spending on programs like those, but not at the cost of investing in a failed idea. Unlike individual taxpayers, states and school districts can’t just write off investment losses every April when we collectively make bad choices. As currently proposed, we’d be stuck with the consequences of Let MI Kids Learn for a generation. Michigan parents and kids can do better.

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