MI’s Snyder Looks to Supreme Court Guidance on Private School Funding

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has asked for the assistance of the state Supreme Court to decide whether the adopted state budget violates the constitution because of funding provisions to private schools.

Lori Higgins writes for the Detroit Free Press that the budget would be funding as much as $2.5 million to pay back private schools for costs connected to state-mandated obligations, including compliance with state fire and building codes, background checks for employees, and immunizations.

State public school advocates have decried the funding and have said that it infringes on the Michigan Constitution, which contains a ban on public funding for private schools.

But the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools, and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school organization, argue that such funding would not violate the constitution.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the school administrators group, said in a statement, “The bottom line is that public funds should go to public schools. It’s in our constitution, and it’s the will of Michigan voters.”

But those who support the funding say the money is merely about reimbursing non-public schools for state mandates they are compelled to pay.

The $2.5 million in funding was unacceptable to groups like the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

“It’s written in such a way that it’s geared toward protecting the health and safety of children in schools, and it doesn’t really address educational or curriculum type issues,” said Brian Broderick, Executive Director of Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools.

Snyder has asked for the court’s opinion before the budget goes into effect on the first of October, according to Brian McVicar of  MLive Media Group. The governor’s request for advice from the Supreme Court could protect the state from potential lawsuits from groups supporting public schools. An answer from the court in a timely manner would also provide certainty before the implementation of the new funding.

The budget defines the money as “noninstructional in character,” and is intended only to promote the safety, health, and welfare of all students, writes Jonathan Oosting of The Detroit News.

There are some “internally inconsistent” portions of the law that might allow private institutions reimbursements for civics classes, according to an opinion from the Dickinson Wright Law Firm.

But some states have thrown caution to the wind and started programs using public money for private schools. In May, Jason Margolis wrote for Public Radio International about Nevada’s schools, which were some of the worst-performing schools in the nation. As a solution to this problem, a law was passed that would give taxpayer money to students to attend private schools.

The law was enacted in 2015 by the Republican-led legislature and would provide parents with a minimum of $5,100 a year in tax money for private school tuition. But one of the most renowned advocates for school choice is opposed to the Education Savings Accounts (ESA) program in Nevada.

Dr. Howard Fuller, founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), says unless this kind of program is offering “a tool to empower communities” and is giving students who do not have high-quality education options to access solid schools. the change will do more harm than good.

Fuller says Nevada is offering a program that is not even designed to target these inequities. Soon after the program went into effect, parents filed lawsuits calling the move an “unconstitutional diversion of public school funding.”

As of June, 2016, the Nevada ESA program has held up in court, according to Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute.