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Michigan’s governor should follow Pennsylvania’s on school choice expansions

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Anthony Samuels beat the odds. In his own words, “I’m probably the only male in my family that doesn’t have a record.” Not only does Samuels not have a criminal record, but he’s also a college graduate and a successful business owner.

Samuels is undeniably talented and resourceful, but too often in North Philadelphia that’s not enough. He attributes his success to the quality education he received at Abington Friends School on a tax credit scholarship. But his story could have been very different. Samuels was zoned to attend Strawberry Mansion High School, a school so bad that ABC News’s Diane Sawyer ran two specials on it. Thanks to Pennsylvania’s scholarship program, Samuels broke the cycles of crime and poverty.

School choice programs in Pennsylvania have given thousands of kids access to a transformative education. And these opportunities are expanding. Since Gov. Tom Wolf took office in 2014, tax credit scholarships have grown by $130 million, nearly doubling the programs. Most recently, Wolf signed a $40 million budget increase, which could provide scholarships for 13,000 kids. In fact, Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia — a scholarship organization serving low-income families — recently announced they will offer scholarships to 500 additional kids next year.

In the year of education choice, Pennsylvania has the largest school choice increase signed by a Democratic governor. Wolf must be a true school choice champion, right?

Sadly, the opposite is true. Wolf has called tax credit scholarships “a distraction from what we ought to be doing — educating every child in the public school system … raid on the taxpayer.” He withheld scholarship letters, jeopardizing scholarships for 8,000 kids, and he vetoed legislation that would have ended the tax credit scholarship wait list.

Wolf vehemently opposes parental choice regarding schools. The Pennsylvania State Education Association has donated millions of dollars to Wolf’s political campaigns. Yet the largest education choice expansions in the state’s history have occurred during his tenure. How?

Stalwarts in the state’s General Assembly — notably former Speaker of the House Mike Turzai and current Chair of the Senate Education Committee Scott Martin — forced the issue. Year in and year out, these champions insisted that an educational win for parents and children must be included in the negotiated budget.

On the other side of Lake Erie, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is operating from the same basic playbook as Wolf, but may be missing a big chance to redeem herself. This year alone, Whitmer has vetoed two proposals to fund students rather than systems with federal COVID-19 relief money. Now she says a major proposal backed by the Michigan legislature to offer thousands of public and private school students tax credit-funded Student Opportunity Scholarships is “a non-starter.” Whitmer still has time to reconsider.

Like Wolf, Michigan’s governor is supported by the teachers union and has a broader track record of opposition to educational choice. In 2019, she tried to selectively deny a funding increase to some students whose parents opted to enroll them in charter public schools. A pushback from those families, many of them lower-income or minority families, helped Whitmer to reconsider this misstep. Families of children with added learning challenges also have recognized the need for more education options to help their children thrive academically.

The COVID-19 experience has grown the ranks of frustrated families clamoring for more choices in education. We’re just beginning to learn the shocking effects of pandemic disrupted learning. The most vulnerable kids — who already were behind before COVID-19 — have lost up to six months of learning. Such realizations fuel growing support nationwide for school choice. A RealClear opinion poll this summer showed 74 percent in favor — up 10 percentage points since 2020.

Michigan’s Student Opportunity Scholarship plan, which awaits a final vote of legislative approval, would encourage more donations to help fund families seeking to meet their children’s educational needs. Most students would qualify for a share of $500 million in family-directed accounts to pay for educational expenses of their choosing. 

If Wolf, who has demonstrated allegiance to teacher unions, can sign massive school choice expansions in Pennsylvania, other governors including Whitmer should as well. Kids need it. Parents want it. It’s simply the right thing to do.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.

Marc LeBlond is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. Follow him on Twitter @mleblond1.

Tags COVID-19 Education Gretchen Whitmer School choice teacher unions Tom Wolf

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