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Snyder proposes cut for private, homeschooled students

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – House Republicans are pushing back against a budget proposal from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to cut and cap state funding for private and homeschooled students who enroll in non-core classes at public schools.

The Michigan Constitution generally prohibits the use of public dollars for non-public school students, but the state has long provided indirect aid to part-time students through “shared time” programs run by public schools. Enrollment in the programs, which can legally only include “non-essential” and elective classes, has doubled since 2012 and is expected to cost Michigan $115 million this year, or about $80 per traditional public school student.

Snyder is proposing to cap shared-time student funding at $60 million per year starting in the 2018 budget, arguing the money would better be spent on additional investments in core-subject classes at schools across the state.

“We can’t give away $40 per pupil and be so low on our NAEP test,” Robbie Jameson, director of the office of education within the State Budget Office, told legislators Tuesday. “We have to focus the limited dollars we have on core subjects to help students get their reading and math skills up.”

Michigan ranks in the bottom third of all states for fourth-grade reading proficiency, fourth-grade math and eighth-grade math, according to 2015 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

But Rep. Tim Kelly, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid and Education, said the Republican governor’s proposal will face resistance in the GOP-led Legislature.

“I think on one hand you’re encouraging creativity and innovation and then slapping it back down when you see it,” said Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “I’m befuddled by all this.”

Kelly said he will move to restore the shared-time funding for non-public school students and will again propose public funding to reimburse private schools for complying with various state mandates, including safety drills.

The Legislature approved $2.5 million for private school mandate reimbursement in the current year budget, but the governor’s 2018 proposal does not include it. The Michigan Supreme Court in October denied Snyder’s request for an advisory opinion on whether the appropriation was constitutional.

“It’s going back in,” Kelly told reporters, saying he’ll pursue at least another $2.5 million. “It’s not like the costs go away, so I don’t understand.”

Snyder’s proposed cap on shared-time programs could ultimately free up more money for core classes, as intended, but it could also hurt some public school districts that receive state funding for providing the services.

Some districts have dramatically expanded their part-time student offerings in recent years. More than half of all non-public students in shared time programs now take classes in 10 separate school districts, according to the administration.

Livingston County’s Brighton Area Schools, which runs the state’s largest shared-time program, receives state funding for the equivalent of 1,753 full-time students, roughly 23 percent of its total enrollment. The Berkley School District in Oakland County receives funding for the equivalent of 1,325 full-time students.

“Some people are clearly better at it than others,” Kelly said.

But Jameson, in her testimony before the K-12 subcommittee, questioned the type of shared-time classes offered by some districts.

Berrien Springs Public Schools, she said, offers non-public students an animal husbandry class titled “the wonderful world of horses.” The Gull Lake School District, she noted, offers a virtual course in the “anatomy of movement” in soccer.

“I think the original idea was that a private school may not be able to afford to have a band teacher, to have an art teacher, so the intent was to allow these kids to be able to come into the public school system for these kind of non-core courses,” Jameson said.

“But as you can see it’s been expanded. I’m not saying anything they’re doing is illegal, but these are the types of courses being offered.”

State Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, told Jameson the Snyder administration should pursue a policy change if it is concerned about shared-time class offerings.

“It seems to me like you’re really not solving the problem,” he said. “You’re still allowing those same classes. It’s just a funding cut.”

Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools, said the governor’s proposal would “probably mean a severe reduction or elimination of some shared time programs in public schools.”

“We find that to be pretty problematic,” said Broderick, whose group represents primarily parochial schools that can send their students to public schools for some non-core classes.

But state Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton, called Snyder’s proposed funding cap a “step in the right direction” that would prioritize full-time students and the educators who teach them.

While the proposal could reduce funding for some public schools that run large shared-time programs, Pagan said she does not think it is a sound approach to balancing local district budgets.

“I think the best way to fund our schools is to increase the foundation allowance and make sure all our schools are fully funded, not by adding these part-time non-public school students,” she said. “I think it’s the wrong answer.”