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Opinion | Let MI Kids Learn would benefit families and students

Michigan families deserve to understand the true promise of a plan to give them greater say over tax credit-funded education dollars. The Let MI Kids Learn plan has the potential to benefit tens of thousands of Michigan students and their families each year. Unfortunately, Michigan State University Professor of education policy Joshua Cowen’s selective account in Bridge Michigan painted a distorted picture of what the best research tells us about private school choice policies.

Beth DeShone, Ben DeGrow
Beth DeShone is the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center. (Courtesy photos)

The Let MI Kids Learn plan would create K-12 education savings accounts (ESAs) that families could use for private school tuition as well as a wide range of education expenses to customize their children’s education. Instead of using public funds, these would offer income tax credits to businesses and individuals who donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations that fund the ESAs. The plan also includes access to supplemental funds for low-income, middle-income and special-needs students still enrolled in the state’s public schools.

Cowen is right that Michigan is a leader in public school choice, but parents are demanding more options beyond traditional district and charter schools. Neighboring districts don’t always have slots available, and some struggle to provide what families are looking for. Since pandemic policies disrupted many children’s access to needed in-person instruction, private schools have offered a reliable, effective alternative that has attracted many new students. It should come as no surprise that when asked about adopting a K-12 education saving account policy, 65 percent of Michigan voters – and 74 percent of parents with school-aged children – favor the idea.

More than 30 states plus Washington, D.C. already have some form of private school choice policy, including 10 states with ESAs similar to what would be created by the plan. Yet readers of Cowen’s guest commentary would have no idea that private school choice is among the most-studied education policies and the research literature is overwhelmingly positive.

The national education organization EdChoice has compiled all known 17 random-assignment studies of the effects of private school choice programs on the academic outcomes of participating students. Random assignment is the gold standard of social science research. This approach makes apples-to-apples comparisons and allows researchers to determine whether a particular policy or intervention is really making a difference.

Of these 17 studies, 11 found statistically significant positive effects while only four found negative effects. Additionally, five out of seven studies found that choice policies boosted high school graduation and college enrollment, while the remaining two find no visible effects. Overall, that’s a favorable track record.

Cowen ignores these positive findings by lemon-picking a few outliers that find negative effects. That’s particularly true regarding the studies he cites from Louisiana. According to EdChoice director of policy Jason Bedrick, that state’s voucher program is uniquely flawed and overregulated. And while ignoring most gold standard research, Cowen includes a few studies that use less rigorous methods than random assignment. 

Even worse, Cowen misrepresented those findings. Although he cites a study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program as negative, the latest version found no effects on test scores but positive effects on parent satisfaction and student safety and attendance—all at about one-third the cost per pupil of D.C.’s district schools. Cowen even conceded that he had made this same mistake two years ago, yet he repeated it again here.

Indeed, parents and taxpayers care about a lot more than just test scores. An abundance of research demonstrates the effects school choice policies have on civic values and practices, parent satisfaction, racial integration, district school performance, and the fiscal bottom line. In all, 146 out of the 170 studies compiled by EdChoice have found positive effects. Only 12 have found any negative impact.

Michigan citizens and policymakers need to hear the whole story, not only about what these scholarships actually do but also what the research tells us about the value of private school choice. Follow the science: the attacks don’t add up. Parents know what works best to help their children succeed, and the Let MI Kids Learn Plan will be a valuable tool for them.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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