Labor Voices: No public tax dollars for private schools

Paula Herbart

In 2000, Betsy DeVos suffered a spectacular loss at the polls in her attempt to get private school vouchers funded by state taxpayers. Nearly 70 percent of Michigan voters rejected that year’s DeVos-funded ballot measure, which ended her push for public funding of private and religious schools.

Or did it?

Fast forward to 2016, when Republicans in Lansing – many recipients of DeVos campaign contributions – paid tribute to her by inserting a $2.5 million appropriation for private schools into the 2016-17 School Aid Act. They did it again in the 2017-18 state budget, earmarking another $2.5 million to nonpublic schools.

This appropriation flew in the face of overwhelming voter rejection of public funding for private schools – and it violated the state constitution. Article VIII, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution states “No public monies shall be appropriated by the legislature to aid any private, denominational or other non-public school.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

The Council About Parochiaid led a coalition of groups in a lawsuit challenging the funding of private schools with public tax dollars. In May, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens struck down both appropriations as unconstitutional violations of the ban on aid to non-public schools. The state appealed and, just last week, the Michigan Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case.

Meanwhile, despite public opposition across the country, President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos inserted $20 billion in their first education budget for private school tuition and for-profit, corporate-run charter schools. While that scheme was rejected by the Republican-controlled Congress, state legislatures, emboldened by Trump and DeVos pushed appropriations for private schools in state budgets.

Attempts to divert scarce public tax dollars to private schools could not have come at a worse time here in Michigan. Numerous studies – including two commissioned by the state itself – have consistently shown Michigan public schools to be severely underfunded. The School Finance Research Collaborative study outlines how students are being shortchanged by nearly $2,000 per year in basic funding – setting aside additional funds needed for special education, transportation and other costs.

Traditional public school funding has been seriously eroded by more than $1 billion sent to for-profit, corporate-run charter schools each year. Opening the door to direct funding of private and religious schools would further squeeze already constricted public school budgets.

Education will be a major issue in the November election. Voters should put this question directly to candidates for state house, state senate and governor: “Do you support spending public tax dollars on private schools?” The vast majority of Republican legislators have already answered that question by attempting to violate the Michigan constitution and appropriate public funds to private schools.

Attorney General Bill Schuette is representing the state in its appeal of the court decision striking down the $5 million in unconstitutional budget appropriations.

Schuette’s ties to DeVos and belief in school vouchers are no secret. He publicly supported the failed voucher initiative in 2000. He has tweeted that DeVos – whose family has donated more than $170,000 to his campaigns according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network – is a “smart and gifted leader in education.” According to VoteSmart, an independent voter website, Schuette supports providing parents with “state-funded vouchers to send their children to any participating school (public, private or religious).”

But our state constitution is clear – whether you’re a Republican legislator, an Attorney General or the U.S. Secretary of Education.

“No public monies shall be appropriated by the legislature to aid any private, denominational or other non-public school.”

Absent a constitutional amendment – which voters have already rejected – the $5 million in question needs to be re-appropriated to Michigan’s public school students where it belongs.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.