Supreme Court asks for briefs on private school funding

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Supreme Court asked for briefs Wednesday from Gov. Rick Snyder, state lawmakers, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and others after the governor requested the high court to weigh in on the constitutionality of using $2.5 million to reimburse private schools as part of the $16.1 billion state education budget.

Snyder signed into law a $54.5 billion fiscal year 2017 budget last month and also requested an advisory opinion on the appropriation’s constitutionality.

For the first time, parochial and other private schools will receive $2.5 million in state funding as reimbursement for government mandates, such as safety drills and immunization reporting.

Public school groups argued the appropriation violates the state constitution’s ban on subsidizing private schools and would set a precedent for future funding requests. The ban prevents school vouchers.

The court set a deadline of Aug. 26 for the briefs.

Snyder, who has the constitutional authority to request advisory opinions on bills he has signed before they take effect, recently said a quick court answer to important questions “greatly assists the people of Michigan by avoiding the proliferation of state and federal lawsuits on the same question” and provides certainty before implementation.

A coalition of public school groups and employee unions have had meetings to discuss a possible lawsuit over the private school appropriation.

Those groups include the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the American Federation of Teachers.

The Michigan Catholic Conference and other supporters, meanwhile, say the appropriation is constitutionally sound because the budget includes language stating the private school funds are for purposes “noninstructional in character” and are intended for “ensuring the health, safety and welfare” of students.

The Michigan Constitution bans any “payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies” to nonpublic schools. It says state funds can be used to provide transportation to any kind of school but the language has usually been interpreted to block state support for educational services at private schools.

The $2.5 million general fund appropriation is intended to help parochial and other nonpublic schools cover costs associated with state mandates identified in a 2014 report prepared by the Michigan Department of Education.

Mandates listed in the report include student health and safety requirements, such as immunization compliance and fire drills, but also mandatory government history and civics courses.