Jacques: How the state can send aid to private schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan’s private schools are closer than they’ve ever been to getting some financial assistance from the state.

While this is going to raise the ire of hard-core public school supporters, it’s the right thing to do and doesn’t appear to cross any constitutional lines in a state that has one of the toughest amendments blocking state funding for private schools.

The $1 million in funding approved last month in the House Appropriations school aid subcommittee would only be directed to helping nonpublic schools cover the costs of state-mandated health and safety regulations.

“We’ll see how far we can get with it,” says Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township.

Kelly, who chairs the subcommittee, is a strong supporter of private schools, and he included $5 million in last year’s budget but it got stripped out by the full Appropriations Committee. Kelly’s more hopeful this time that the funding could make into the final K-12 school budget.

“It’s important not only to signal that we value what they do but to compensate the schools for the rules that they follow,” he says.

Public schools get reimbursed specifically for meeting these health and safety standards, and it’s only fair that private schools, which must also follow the regulations, receive funding for doing the same.

The requirements include verification and maintenance of immunization records; performance and maintenance of criminal background checks on all school personnel; conducting fire, tornado and lockdown drills, and taking attendance.

The Michigan Catholic Conference, one of the primary supporters of the funding, calculates the compliance costs to be about $100 per student and has estimated the total costs at $10 million each year.

In Michigan, there are nearly 600 private schools, which educate 101,000 students. The Catholic Conference believes that providing funding to nonpublic schools for compliance with state mandates is “legitimate and good public policy.”

So while $1 million is a far cry from the amount private schools spend on state regulations, it’s a step in the right direction, says Dave Maluchnik, director of communications for the state Catholic Conference.

“It’s a very good starting point,” Maluchnik says.

And there’s a chance that number could get a boost in the Senate. Even though the Senate Appropriations school aid subcommittee left out the line item for private schools, there’s anticipated support from the Appropriations Committee and Senate leadership.

There is precedent in Michigan for public dollars for private schools. For instance, private school students can benefit from shared time instruction services from public schools as well as courses from the Michigan Virtual University.

Similarly, the Michigan State Police in 2015 awarded $4 million in state grants to purchase equipment and technology to improve safety and security of school buildings, students and staff. Fifteen private schools were included in those grants.

Other states are covering regulatory costs for nonpublic schools, too. Both Ohio and New York have robust programs for reimbursing private schools for their compliance. New York budgets $160 million for the program, which translates to about $400 per student. Ohio currently has $65 million budgeted, and a maximum reimbursement of $420 per pupil.

If this money gets allocated for Michigan’s nonpublic schools, it will be a small victory for those who believe school choice in Michigan should be expanded to include private schools.

By blurring the line between public and private school dollars in this instance, it could open the door to broader discussions in the future.

“The state is going stronger in the direction of school choice,” Maluchnik says.