Could private vouchers transform Detroit’s education scene?

Catholic educational leaders say more options would help inner-city students and, in the long run, Detroit’s public schools, too

While Michigan's state constitution prohibits the use of vouchers for students to attend private schools, adopting the practice - as 21 other states have - could mean greater access to educational options for inner-city poor and minority students, say representatives of the Michigan Catholic Conference and the Archdiocese of Detroit. Photos by Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

While Michigan’s state constitution prohibits the use of vouchers for students to attend private schools, adopting the practice – as 21 other states have – could mean greater access to educational options for inner-city poor and minority students, say representatives of the Michigan Catholic Conference and the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Photos by Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

Detroit — This week, Catholic schools celebrate all they have achieved for millions of students across the country.

All year round, however, Catholic educational leaders in Michigan are thinking of ways to expand the option of a Christ-centered education to others.

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit have educated hundreds of thousands of students, but many in some of Detroit’s lower-income brackets are priced out of a private-school education.

Catholic leaders would like to see that change.

While Michigan law prohibits the use of vouchers at private schools, Catholic leaders have been arguing for years that a change in that policy could help lift up more poor and minority students, especially in the city.

“Obviously, vouchers would have an immediate impact on Catholic schools in Detroit,” said Brian Dougherty, Ph.D., superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit. “It would give parents an opportunity to shop for their child different kinds of schools versus Detroit Public Schools.”

With Detroit Public Schools sifting through a financial restructuring that has resulted in teacher sick-outs, school closings and overcrowding, Dougherty said vouchers could give Detroit students more options. According to an article in the Detroit News, the city’s public school graduation rate has increased from 64.55 percent to 71.05 percent from the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 term, but the district is still mired in financial trouble.

“Vouchers are a great opportunity for people to have the chance to select a Catholic education that they otherwise might not be able to afford,” Dougherty said. “To remove that economic barrier would allow more students within the city of Detroit to be successful.”

Article VIII, Section 2 of the Michigan state constitution prohibits public money in the form of tax credits or vouchers to be used toward tuition at any private pre-elementary, elementary or secondary school.

It’s a somewhat unique law among Midwestern states, according to Paul Stankewitz, director of education, criminal justice and regulatory issues for the Michigan Catholic Conference.

“Our constitution is pretty airtight in preventing aid from going to private schools,” Stankewitz said. “For most states, they have a rule that says no money from the general fund can support

Brian M. Dougherty, Ph.D.

Brian M. Dougherty, Ph.D.

private schools, but states work around that with allowing vouchers or tax credits, which cover a portion of tuition for parents in those states.

“They did a really good job writing this thing,” Stankewitz said of Michigan’s constitution. “For example, Pennsylvania has an education tax credit, which doesn’t violate their constitution, which says public money must go to public schools. Vouchers and tax credits aren’t considered public money; it’s the taxpayer’s money.”

Even though vouchers aren’t available in Michigan — for now — Stankewitz said Detroit would immediately benefit should they become available.

“All types of schools need to be good for our state to thrive,” Stankewitz said. “Catholic teaching places parents as the primary educators of their children. If they think public or private schools are the best for their children, they should have the right to choose.”

As a possible middle ground, Stankewitz offered the example of other states whose vouchers don’t cover the full amount for tuition at a private school.

“Let’s say DPS gets $8,000 per pupil, for example. Most states would offer $4,000 for a private school,” Stankewitz said. “The remaining money would go to the public school district. So the Catholic schools would get a boost in enrollment, and the public schools would still get more money to teach fewer students, thus having more resources available per student.”

The issue of school vouchers has been — and always will be — a hot-button issue, Stankewitz and Dougherty conceded, but as Detroit and other public school systems are figuring out ways to succeed in the 21st century, Dougherty said it’s time to put students first and worry about “adult problems” later.

“I think there is a fear about vouchers, a fear of losing jobs,” Dougherty said. “By having Catholic schools, our state is saving a billion dollars from students who’d otherwise be in the public school system. There’s a fear that if more students went to the Catholic schools, it would cost public school jobs, but that’s an adult problem.

“We’re not focusing on the number of children affected,” he continued. “If our schools — all schools in Detroit — continue to perform below par, we’re not just hurting Detroit’s schools; we’re hurting Detroit’s kids, its future.”

Stankewitz

Stankewitz

In order to focus on students first, parents must have the freedom to choose whatever school they want for their children, which means having the economic capability to provide them with multiple options. For this reason, the Church has always been supportive of charter and cyber schools, Stankewitz said.

“This is all based on the principle that parents should have the right to do what’s best for their child,” Stankewitz said. “Catholic schools have a proven track record, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. When Catholic schools close, (students) go to public schools, adding to the increase in the stress on public schools. Catholic schools save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

With the Michigan Legislature forming committees to decide how to fix Detroit Public Schools, parents and students in the city are waiting, looking for relief and a chance to give students a quality education.

“If you look at a city like Phoenix, Ariz., which has vouchers, it’s a concept that’s working for them,” Dougherty said. “There were some cutbacks, but there was a growth in education. It’s like a balloon: put pressure on one end, and it will go to the other. Many teachers took jobs at Catholic schools, and students in both systems benefited.

“The key is, something must change in Detroit with educating our kids. Doing the same thing and expecting change is ridiculous,” he said. “Now is the time to reinvent what we do for our kids.”