Snyder signs education budget with private school aid

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Commerce Township — Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday lauded the $16.14 billion education budget bill he signed into law, but acknowledged $2.5 million in new aid for private schools in the fiscal year 2017 spending plans faces legal concerns.

The education budget is 2 percent larger than the version Snyder signed last year despite revenue projection reductions in May that forced the governor and legislators to scale back some initial spending proposals for K-12 schools, community colleges and universities.

“This is an unprecedented investment in our future, in our kids,” Snyder said in a signing ceremony at Geisler Middle School in Commerce Township, where he was joined by students, educators and state legislators.

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 had called on the governor to strike the private school funding from the budget through a line-item veto, arguing 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 Michigan Constitution specifically prevents public resources from being appropriated directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic school,” a group of school association officials told the governor in a June 14 letter.

“It is also important to recognize that public schools do not receive extra money to provide these same basic, common sense, public safety-related type of state mandates.”

In signing the budget Monday, the Republican governor acknowledged legal concerns with the private schools funding and said his office was reviewing options, including a possible request for an advisory opinion from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

“We’re still looking at the consequences and the best ways to look at the legal issues associated with that, but at this point I thought it appropriate to move ahead and let’s address the legal question separately,” Snyder said.

Private schools educate roughly 100,000 students in Michigan. Some state funds already support private schools that share services or teachers with public schools, and private schools have recently won state grants to improve building security and safety.

Rep. Tim Kelley, R-Saginaw Township, said he is confident the private funding is constitutional and hopes it does set a precedent.

“It’s something I’ve been after for over 25 years and something that I’d like to see expanded,” said Kelley, who attended the signing ceremony and had proposed a similar appropriation last budget cycle.

“We value all kids, not just those that are going through traditional public schools,” he said. “I think that this was clearly historic to be able to get money to offset some of the costs that we ask them to do.”

The governor is expected to sign a $38.8 billion general government spending bill later this week, completing the $54.9 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

K-12 spending is set to increase 1.9 percent next year, with gross spending going from $13.9 billion to $14.16 billion. Per-pupil funding will rise $60 to $120, depending on the district, providing schools with a basic allowance of between $7,511 and $8,229 per student.

Snyder said the per-pupil allocation will help the lowest-funded districts to further close a long-running funding gap.

“That’s a significant increase,” the governor said, noting the state’s continued increased investment in the Michigan school employee retirement system. “It’s over a billion dollars a year now, and that was up from essentially nothing just a few years ago.”

Detroit Public Schools will see an extra $72 million in per-pupil funding after Snyder last week signed a separate relief package that will see the district use an existing millage to pay down operating debt. That money ultimately will come from state tobacco settlement dollars.

The K-12 budget includes $10.1 million in Flint water crisis aid, including $6.2 million for early intervention services to identify and help students exposed to lead.

The governor’s School Reform Office will receive $5 million to fund and place CEOs in chronically poor-performing schools, a controversial new state takeover model recently implemented in East Detroit Public Schools.

Funding for operations at Michigan’s 15 public universities will increase 2.9 percent or $39.8 million next year, down from the $59.8 million bump that Snyder proposed.

The governor hoped to fully reverse high education funding reductions from his first year in office, but four universities will remain below fiscal year 2011 levels under the final budget deal he signed into law.

“I think we made good progress towards that goal,” Snyder said, “and you should expect that to be one of my priorities in the next budget and even the budget thereafter until we get at least back to even and hopefully get an opportunity to invest.”

Universities will jeopardize state funding if they increase tuition by more than 4.2 percent in the coming school year under the latest version of a tuition restraint cap Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature first implemented in 2012. For the first time, universities also would be barred from receiving authorization for state-funded construction projects if they raise tuition too much.

Oakland and Eastern Michigan universities lost funding after exceeding last year’s 3.2 percent tuition restraint cap, and the new budget strips another $400,000 in performance funding from each institution.

That money will instead be distributed among the four universities that continue to receive less state funding than they did in fiscal year 2011: Michigan State, the University of Michigan, Wayne State and Western Michigan.

Total spending on community colleges will increase 2.1 percent, going from $387.8 million to $395.9 million next year. The budget includes a $4.4 million increase for community college operations, scaled back from the $7.5 million the governor had proposed and the $10.6 million approved by the House.