Engler's Angle: How Tax Relief Became School Reform in Michigan
Green, Derek, Reason
For many years, Michigan was like most other states when it came to public-school reform: There was a lot of talk, a little legislation, and no real progress on the issue. Even after the Kalkaska School District in northern Michigan made national headlines in 1993 by going broke and closing its schools partway through the academic year, legislators still couldn't find the wherewithal to overhaul the state's inefficient and widely despised 100-year-old system of funding education through property taxes. Property taxes were a major problem in their own right: They increased three-fold from 1972 to 1992. And because there were no assessment caps in place, local governments could raise property taxes with relative ease.
"You can't imagine the level of frustration in this state," says Bob Wittmann, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland, Michigan. "The frustration was felt by everyone. No one liked the status quo, but every time someone tried to do something about it, something went wrong."
The frustration--and desperation--in the governor's office was especially keen. First-term Republican John Engler had squeaked through his 1990 election with a victory margin of one percentage point, campaigning on a platform loaded with tax relief and school reform. But after three years in office, Engler and company had nothing to show for their efforts. And with re-election worries on the horizon, few believed that education or tax reform would come to Michigan any time soon.
Last July, however, everything suddenly changed. In a 24-hour blaze of lawmaking, Michigan legislators stunned even themselves by passing a controversial bill abolishing the practice of funding schools with property taxes. By the end of December, a bipartisan package of school-finance plans and education-quality reforms had passed both houses and gone to the governor's desk for signing.
Somehow, in less than six months, Michigan's leadership had managed to reverse a quarter century of bitter partisan gridlock, dramatically changing the way schools will work in their state and, many are saying, providing a model for public-school reform across the country--one that includes a charter-school provision incorporating significant elements of school-choice logic. It's a story of political hardball and genuine bipartisan achievement that provides a lesson for every state faced with education reform.
Described by The New York Times as "the nation's most dramatic shift in a century" in public-school funding, the new plan essentially transfers the burden of paying for schools in Michigan away from local property taxes to an increased state sales tax and other existing levies. In addition to changing funding sources, the plan addresses the amount spent per student. Every district is guaranteed funding no lower than its 1993 budget, and all districts will now spend at least $4,200 per student, a $1,000 increase over the previous minimum.
A more controversial--and ultimately more significant--provision of the plan allows the creation of "Public School Academies," or charter schools. These "schools of choice" can be established by various entities, such as parent-teacher associations, school boards, departments of state government, and non-profit organizations.
Michigan is unique among states experimenting with charter schools because it has set no limit on their number. Supporters say the move will provide "borderless options" for parents and students unhappy with their own school districts, and spur much-needed innovation in a school system overgrown with regulation and bureaucracy. And because it introduces a significant element of competition into the state's public schools, the charter-school provision acts as a hedge against the spread of uniform mediocrity. When local property taxes largely determine the amount of money spent per student, there are typically good, well-funded schools and bad, poorly funded ones. …