Opinion: Michigan leaders fight federal funding for private schools

Brian D. Broderick

The State of Michigan’s lawsuit challenging a United States Department of Education (USDE) Interim Final Rule on how federal relief funds are to be shared between public and nonpublic school students moved Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to say, “We know this public health crisis has created a number of obstacles for our students and educators and families. We’ve come together because we recognize that it’s our responsibility to stand up and fight for them.” 

The governor’s statement and language used by both the attorney general and state superintendent of instruction surrounding this issue begs the question of “who” are they “fighting” for? The most immediate answer would seem to be only public school students.

That appears to be at best a dereliction of their duty to represent all Michigan residents. At worst, it is the intentional creation of second-class students simply based upon their parents choosing a nonpublic school as the best option for their children. Is that the Michigan we want to live in?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, public education leaders and parent groups filed an appeal Tuesday asking the Michigan Supreme Court to rule the use of public tax dollars to fund private schools unconstitutional.

The CARES Act, signed into law in late March, allocates $30.75 billion to K-12 schools and higher education to respond to the many impacts of the coronavirus on students and schools. The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) received nearly $390 million to allocate to school districts, with a requirement to provide a portion of the funds to nonpublic school students. How that portion is calculated is the matter in controversy.  The state superintendent chose to reserve $39 million of these funds for other uses.

The USDE published an interim final rule on July 1 to “clarify” requirements for allocating CARES Act money to nonpublic schools. The department requires districts to choose from two options: 1) distribute funds only to Title I (a federal program to assist low-income students) participating public schools and calculate a share to local nonpublic schools based upon their low-income enrollment, or 2) distribute funds based on total student enrollment in public and private schools, regardless of poverty counts. 

The first methodology answers concerns of public school advocates that funding is supposed to assist students in poverty. The second methodology equitably distributes the fund across the board on a proportional basis recognizing that pandemic impacts all students, not just those that are Title I eligible. The state’s lawsuit insists that the funds should be utilized by public schools for all of their students, and to only share funds with low-income students at nonpublic schools.

A fair analysis of the issue requires one to cut through political rhetoric and electoral grandstanding typical of press conferences. Sweeping generalizations are easy to make. To say that nonpublic school students are already equipped with “privileges and resources” is misleading and harmful.

In fact, with a few exceptions, the socio-economic status of student populations at nonpublic schools looks very much like the student populations at the public schools in the community where the schools are located. Schools serving students experiencing high poverty are deserving of a disproportionate share of relief funds. The distribution design does that. 

All students — public and private — experienced unprecedented hardship this year. To penalize a group of students because of perceived privilege does a tremendous disservice to families who sacrifice in order to offer an education that works best for their children.

Many states are approaching this issue in a different manner. To "achieve the greatest benefit" to all schools in the state, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to distribute the funds based on population. Because this approach affects schools differently based on local poverty characteristics, Missouri will use its CARES Act reserve funds to provide additional funds to their public school districts.            

The Michigan Department of Education’s reserve of these same funds ($39 million) are more than enough to cover the alleged potential $16 million overpayment to nonpublic schools. 

It should be noted that Whitmer is asking the state legislature to appropriate an additional $512 million in federal CARES Act dollars to public schools to backfill FY20 budget shortfalls and provide funding for public school districts to implement their return to school preparedness plans.

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned K-12 and post-secondary education upside down. Nonpublic and public K-12 schools have created solid student-centered partnerships over the years that should not be undermined by a narrowly focused lens on who is worthy to receive the benefit of pandemic relief funds. 

It is imperative for our state officials to represent, and support, all Michigan residents during this crisis. That is true leadership.

Brian D. Broderick is the executive director of the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools.