Jacques: Make school budget work for all kids

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

As one of the most hostile states to private school choice, Michigan has effectively blocked tax dollars from getting near nonpublic schools — for the most part. A few programs blur the lines.

Gov. Rick Snyder backed away from two line items in his proposed school aid budget, currently under discussion in the Legislature. While last year he supported offering private and parochial schools $2.5 million to help offset state-mandated health and safety requirements, the governor left it out this time.

Snyder did ask the state Supreme Court to offer an advisory opinion on the matter, which they declined to do last fall. That opened the door for a legal challenge filed this month by public school and parent groups.

All the fuss seems a little silly, given the $2.5 million is a whopping .02 percent of the overall $12 billion school budget. And the money comes from the general fund. What worries detractors is this could open the door to more money flowing into nonpublic schools. That’s extremely unlikely as Michigan has the most ironclad constitutional amendment barring tax dollars from private schools.

But teacher unions and other groups bristle at the thought of sending a penny to schools outside their control.

Still, key GOP lawmakers are committed to keeping this funding, which they say is only fair. Both House and Senate school aid subcommittees passed budgets that included reimbursement funding. The Michigan Catholic Conference calls this funding a “move toward a level playing field for over 100,000 students enrolled in Michigan’s nonpublic schools.”

The subcommittees also kept most of the funding for another program that Snyder had wanted to cut in half. The state spent $115 million this year on shared time instruction, which allows school districts to offer non-core classes to private and home-schooled students.

This is one of the rare times nonpublic and public schools can agree: Shared time benefits them both.

Michael Khoury, president of Detroit Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic school for low-income students, says shared time has enabled the school to offer classes such as Latin, art and physical education.

“It’s critical,” Khoury says. “It helps us in a variety of ways.”

Plenty of school districts like it, too. The Berkley School District, which partners with Cristo Rey, has participated in shared time since 1999, and its program is now one of the most robust in the state, says superintendent Dennis McDavid. Through shared time, outside students can take elective courses usually taught by teachers the public school district sends into the private classrooms. The district is able to collect state funding for these students on a prorated basis.

Over the years, the Legislature has expanded the reach of the program, allowing districts to work with schools in contiguous counties. For Berkley shared time has had a “meaningful” impact on the district’s bottom line, McDavid says.

A work group that studied shared time for the state Education Department found 303 districts participate, and nearly 86,000 students benefit from these courses. Craig Thiel, senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, says the courts have settled the legality of shared time, and that it’s been a boon for districts.

McDavid was disappointed when the governor reduced the shared time funding in his budget.

“You can’t run a business that way,” McDavid says. “We depend on consistent support.”

While other districts have had to make budgets cuts in recent years, Berkley hasn’t had to trim a single program, which McDavid credits to shared time revenue.

“It’s a win win,” McDavid says.