Michigan Supreme Court won't rehear case, allows public aid for private schools

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Supreme Court on Wednesday declined a request for a new hearing on a case that resulted in allowing public funding for non-public schools forced to comply with state mandates. 

In late December, the high court ruled in a split decision to uphold a legislative appropriation to reimburse nonpublic schools for 40 state-mandated services, such as background checks for teachers, fire drills, attendance keeping, immunization records and inspections. 

The 3-3 deadlock along party lines affirmed a state Court of Appeals opinion that found the funding constitutional and remanded the case back to the Court of Claims.

But public school advocates earlier this year asked Michigan's high court to reconsider the case on the chance the court's new 4-3 Democratic majority would reverse the Court of Appeals opinion. 

The justices rejected the request Wednesday in a 5-0 decision.

The Michigan Supreme Court split on whether public aid for private schools for mandatory services is constitutional, meaning a lower Court of Appeals ruling that allowed the practice stood.

Justice Elizabeth Clement didn't participate in the decision because she served as Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder's chief legal counsel when the challenged appropriation initially was authorized.

Justice Elizabeth Welch recused herself because the court considered the case before she came into office in January. Welch also formerly served on the board of Michigan Parents for Schools, one of the public school groups challenging the funding. 

The suit stemmed from a $2.5 million appropriation to nonpublic schools forced to comply with state mandates. The appropriation was made by the Michigan Legislation and signed into law by Snyder. 

Public school groups sued the state over the first appropriation and were engaged in litigation as the Legislature continued to allocate more funding, growing the total to $5.25 million between 2016 and 2018. 

Public school groups argued a 1970 constitutional amendment barred public dollars from going to private schools, but private school advocates have called the money more of a "reimbursement" than money or aid prohibited under the amendment. 

Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens called the funding unconstitutional in April 2018. But a state Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 the spending was constitutional. In the October 2018 decision, the judges said the state could reimburse "incidental costs" that didn't result in "excessive religious entanglement."