Groups sue to block state funds for private schools

Posted at 8:31 PM, Mar 21, 2017

DELTA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Public school advocates sued the state of Michigan on Tuesday in an effort to stop it from spending public money to help private schools cover the cost of complying with state requirements such as safety drills.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the Court of Claims, challenges $2.5 million in funding that was set aside by the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder for the first time in the current budget for nonpublic schools.

The Michigan Association of School Boards and groups representing school districts, administrators and parents said the planned spending is illegal because the state constitution prohibits spending public money on private schools and the state Senate fell short of the minimum two-thirds vote that would have been needed to allocate the aid for a private purpose. They called it a “backdoor voucher.”

Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Michael Rice said at a news conference near Lansing that while $2.5 million in not a large amount in the multibillion-dollar school aid budget, “It’s not the sum that is of question. It’s the principle. You let it go this year and it becomes $25 million next year. The following year it becomes $250 million. This is the camel’s nose under the tent.”

In October, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected the Republican governor’s request for an advisory opinion on whether directly sending the money on nonpublic schools is constitutional. The funds will reimburse private schools this summer for the cost of meeting requirements such as fire drills, bus inspections, immunization reporting and background checks.

A 1970 voter-approved amendment to Michigan’s constitution prohibits spending public money to directly or indirectly aid or maintain parochial and other private schools being attended by roughly 100,000 students. Courts have interpreted the amendment to bar state support for general educational programs unless the main effect is to further a “substantial” governmental purpose.

The Michigan Catholic Conference, the church’s policy arm, supports the $2.5 million in funding and will push for it to be continued in future years, said spokesman Dave Maluchnik.

“We believe that the appropriation helps to ensure that regardless of where a child attends school, they are educated in an environment that is both healthy and safe. We do not believe that the allocation of funds is for educational or instructional purposes,” he said.

But Jeff Donahue, a lawyer for the organizations suing, said the funding is unconstitutional “on its face.” He pointed to a form created by the state Department of Education that he said would allow for reimbursement for more than just health- and safety-related expenses. “It’s clearly stuff directly related to education, clearly things that are related to teaching,” Donahue said.

Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools, countered that private schools will only be able to seek reimbursement for required health and safety expenses, not those related to instruction.

Snyder did not propose continuing the funding for the fiscal year that will start in October. But he did not call for it in the current budget, either, agreeing to the appropriation after GOP legislators added it in.