Column: Nonpublic schools deserve support

Brian Broderick

In 2016 the Michigan Legislature passed with bipartisan support funding to reimburse nonpublic schools for complying with state mandates that help ensure the health, safety, and general welfare of school children. This past week, several public school groups filed suit in the Michigan Court of Claims to prevent the State of Michigan from releasing the funds. It is a short-sighted ploy in a seemingly endless pursuit to treat students differently based on where tax-paying parents choose to send their children to school.

The $2.5 million appropriated from last year’s General Fund is a positive recognition that the health and safety of all students is important. It is the latest development in a welcome movement toward protecting children during the school day, regardless of the building in which they are educated. In fact, the legislature also approved in that budget funding for lead testing at both public and non-public schools. And, for the second time in three years, nonpublic schools were eligible to apply for and received Michigan State Police grants for building safety improvements. All of this is under the construct that the state has an obligation to ensure that all students are learning in safe and healthy environments.

Regrettably, plaintiffs in the lawsuit have responded with allegations that are at best intellectually dishonest, and at worst feed into the narrow instincts of some who find it beneficial to pit public schools against nonpublic schools when it comes to funding the safety of school children. They have alleged the appropriation will take valuable dollars from local public school districts, and have willingly led others into believing as such. Yet a simple reading of the legislation clarifies that the dollars are to be distributed using the state’s General Fund, not School Aid dollars that primarily fund public education.

This is not the only misleading effort intended to perpetuate the failed notion that dollars and cents are more critical than the fair and equitable treatment of all Michigan’s children. Opponents have also taken the well-worn and predictable path of invoking the voucher boogeyman. Ironically, the same crowd refuses to recognize that public school foundation grants are nothing more than public school vouchers that simply never touch the hands of a parent.

The issue now before the Court of Claims has nothing to do with vouchers or Michigan’s archaic constitutional ban on aid to support the attendance of a student at a nonpublic school. The issue, rather, is about costs incurred by a nonpublic school for performing required criminal backgrounds on school employees, conducting safety drills, maintaining immunization records, and at least two dozen additional mandates intended to protect the general welfare and safety of school children.

We believe the Legislature appropriately exercised its authority last year to reimburse nonpublic schools for state-imposed health and safety requirements. It has helped to foster a conversation about greater collaboration between all education providers to further the academic achievement for all of Michigan’s kids. The Legislature has simply recognized the very public function “nonpublic” schools serve — namely, to educate over 100,000 Michigan students in a safe environment.

Brian D. Broderick is the executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools.