Legislative panels approve more aid for private schools

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan’s Republican-led state Legislature is pushing to increase public funding for private school activities despite a recent lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of pending payments.

House and Senate appropriations subcommittees this week approved budgets for next fiscal year that would continue $2.5 million in aid to reimburse non-public schools for state mandates. Both spending bills would also add $250,000 in competitive grants to support FIRST Robotics and Science Olympiad programs at private schools.

The legislative proposals both significantly depart from budget recommendations by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who had proposed cutting the controversial mandate reimbursements for non-public schools.

The House and Senate budgets would also eliminate Snyder’s proposals to boost funding for high school students, reduce funding for cyber charter schools and scale back funding for “shared-time” instruction of private or homeschooled students at public schools.

A coalition of public school and parent groups last week sued the state over a $2.5 million appropriation in the current year budget to reimburse private schools for certain mandates, immunization compliance and safety drills.

The lawsuit contends the funding violates the Michigan Constitution, which generally prohibits direct or indirect aid to private schools. The litigants said they hoped the complaint would send a message to legislators building next year’s budget.

“Let the courts figure that out,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, the Saginaw Township Republican who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on School Aid and wants to continue mandate reimbursement.

“These are things we expect all schools to do,” he said of the mandates. “We want health and safety of all kids. I want to try to get to where we’re treating all kids the same, not differentiating between the schools they pick.”

Tom Hickson, vice president of public policy for the Michigan Catholic Conference, said the newly proposed FIRST Robots and Science Olympiad grants are constitutionally sound because they are “extracurricular, not core” school services.

The developing House budget would give each traditional public and charter K-12 school district a $100-per-pupil increase, rather than the governor’s proposal for variable increases of $50 or $100.

The Senate version would retain the variable funding, which is designed to shrink existing disparities, and shift one-time retirement funding into the foundation allowance, providing an increase of between $88 and $176 per pupil.

The House and Senate will debate full appropriations bills in the coming weeks before negotiating a final agreement with the Snyder administration.

The governor’s recommendations last month for K-12 schools turned heads in Lansing by calling for additional funding specific to high school students, which he called a recognition of higher costs associated with specialized classes and teachers.

Snyder’s budget also proposed cutting cyber charter school funding 20 percent per pupil — he cited cheaper operation costs for schools without brick-and-mortar buildings – and would have capped funding for “shared time” instructional services of non-public and homeschool students at $60 million.

The House and Senate plans include roughly the same amount of funding for K-12 schools that the governor proposed, but they would discard several of Snyder’s original proposals.

“I’m not a big fan of differentiated funding because, why is one student worth less than another student?” said Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, who chairs the Senate appropriations school aid subcommittee.