Jacques: State shouldn’t shun safety at private schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Thirty-one young men in Detroit celebrated their college acceptance on Monday. These graduating seniors from Loyola High School marked the day with pride, and they’ll be heading off to an array of schools this fall, from Morehouse College to Michigan State.

For Loyola, which turns college “signing day” into an annual special occasion, this was the seventh straight year that 100 percent of the school’s graduates got accepted into college. This year’s group also exceeded $1 million in scholarships.

The all-boys school is offering its students a kind of opportunity and attention that too many other young African-Americans in the city don’t get. Roughly 85 percent of the school’s students live in Detroit, home to the worst urban school district in the country.

And the private, Catholic school opens its doors to low-income families with a number of financial aid options.

Bill McGrail, director of advancement for Loyola, estimates that the cost of educating each student is at least $18,000 a year, but parents pay only a small fraction of that.

“A lot of our guys do go on and find success,” McGrail says.

Cristo Rey High School in Detroit boasts similar achievements for its students. These are schools worthy of support in their mission.

Yet several parent and public school groups, as well as the ACLU of Michigan, are suing the state over a small appropriation to give non-public schools reimbursement for following state-mandated health and safety requirements.

The Michigan constitution has the most restrictive Blaine Amendment — 37 states have these provisions — blocking any form of aid to private schools. And these groups argue that the $2.5 million appropriation for the mandates is a violation.

Lawmakers included the line item for the first time last year, and the Legislature is including it again this year, despite the legal fight.

This week Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens denied two motions to intervene in the case. The Michigan Catholic Conference, the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools and several Republican lawmakers wanted a role in the defense. They aren’t giving up.

“We aren’t ready to throw the towel in. It’s not over,” says Tom Hickson, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the Catholic Conference.

Michigan certainly isn’t the only state facing battles over state funding of private schools. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in April in a case out of Missouri, challenging whether a religious school there can receive state funds to improve its playground safety. Opponents are similarly upholding that state’s Blaine Amendment as the reason such money should be blocked.

Blaine Amendments are a relic from the late 1800s and were enacted during a time of bigotry against Catholics, but anti-school choice groups are still using them to protect their turf.

The Missouri case could have broader implications for school choice. In the meantime, private choice programs are enjoying wide growth around the U.S. More than 50 programs exist in 25 states.

Michigan, however, has none. The state’s stubborn resistance to more innovative approaches to education is one of the reasons students here continue to fall behind their peers in other states.

While Michigan has no current path to a voucher or tax credit program, some money has already crossed over to non-public schools. For instance, shared time programs offer private and home-schooled students access to non-core courses in public schools. And private schools have also benefited from state police safety grants, in addition to participation in the state robotics program.

This state is never going to fully fund private schools. Nor should it. But the safety mandate reimbursements — offered in three other states — seem reasonable, especially considering the benefits schools like Loyola offer their students.

“It’s really pretty simple — we are talking about the safety of kids,” Hickson says. “We think it’s fair that the state should help us share in the cost.”

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques