School Choice & Charters

Why Michigan Doesn’t Have School Vouchers and Probably Never Will

By Arianna Prothero — January 04, 2017 3 min read
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With President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to head up the U.S. Department of Education in his administration, there’s been a lot of focus on school choice in Michigan.

The DeVoses have been influential advocates and philanthropic supporters of school choice policies in their home state and beyond—helping launch and shape Michigan’s charter school sector over the last two decades.

But the DeVoses are also big proponents of school vouchers, which allow students to use public money to attend a private school.

So if the DeVoses have been so successful in influencing charter school policy in the state, why doesn’t Michigan have a single voucher program?

The answer has to do with something in the state’s constitution called a Blaine Amendment.

Named for James G. Blaine, a U.S. representative from Maine who served in the House in the late 1800s, Blaine Amendments appear in 37 state constitutions, and they ban states from sending public money to private or religious institutions.

Michigan’s Blaine Amendment is the most restrictive in the country.

“This is a very specific Blaine Amendment to stop funds going to private schools,” said Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice. “Most other Blaine Amendments don’t typically ... mention mechanisms like vouchers.”

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that school vouchers did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause (because states don’t choose which private schools to send the money to, parents do), Blaine Amendments in state constitutions, like Michigan’s, have acted as a bulwark slowing the spread of vouchers.

But Blaine Amendments don’t always work. While the wording of some Blaine Amendments provides enough wiggle room for a voucher program, school choice advocates have also come up with other voucher-like programs to work around prohibitions in many state constitutions.

Through these programs, state lawmakers either incentivize donations to private school scholarship programs, as is the case with tax-credit scholarships, or they allow parents to use state per-pupil funding on a variety of education services that includes private schools, but not strictly on private schools, such as with education savings accounts.

“Things like tax credits for scholarships are the ways we generally work around states that have a bad Blaine law,” said Richard Komer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that defends legal challenges to voucher programs. "[Michigan] is very specific about not having these forms of school choice. That’s why the only school choice in Michigan is charter schools.”

Michigan’s Blaine Amendment expressly prohibits even “indirect” funding of private schools, whether through “payment, credit, tax benefit, exemptions or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan”.

But it’s not as though the DeVoses haven’t tried to get a voucher program in Michigan. They pushed a failed attempt in 2000 to amend the state’s constitution to create a voucher program for students in school districts with low graduation rates. The DeVoses poured nearly $13 million into the effort.

With such a high hurdle to overcome, Enlow and Komer agree that the chances of the state creating any kind of voucher program remain slim to none.

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Photo: Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, sits in the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., before the start of their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. —Susan Walsh/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.