MI Supreme Court rules non-public schools can get state funds

Dec 29, 2020

Credit Steve Carmody

A deadlock on the Michigan Supreme Court has effectively reversed a ban on any taxpayer funds going to private and religious schools. The decision allows state funds to go toward helping schools comply with health and safety mandates.

Religious organizations cheered the decision, while public school administrators and teachers unions won’t rule out a renewed challenge.

Republican-led legislatures approved nominal funding in two state budgets to test the limits of a 1970 voter-approved amendment to the Michigan Constitution. The amendment includes this provision:

No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school. No payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student or the employment of any person at any such nonpublic school or at any location or institution where instruction is offered in whole or in part to such nonpublic school students. The legislature may provide for the transportation of students to and from any school.

A lower court ruled that language does not preclude the Legislature from appropriating money to help schools pay their costs for complying with safety rules. Tom Hickson of the Michigan Catholic Conference called it “a matter of fairness.”

“If you’re going to require a non-public school – Catholic, Lutheran or any non-public school – require them to handle fire drills, or eliminate mercury in the thermometers and the labs, and things like this, they should be eligible for funding,” he said.

The seven-member Supreme Court deadlocked three-to-three. Justice Elizabeth Clement abstained because she served as legal counsel to then-Governor Rick Snyder when he signed the budget that set up the test case.

The impasse on the court left standing a lower court ruling that non-public schools can be reimbursed for some expenses.

But this decision is almost certainly not the final word on the question. Civil rights groups, school employee unions, and administrators say the decision would result in taxpayer funds being siphoned from public schools to support private schools that are supposed to be financed by tuition paid by families who choose that option.

“Public dollars should remain in public classrooms,” said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “This ruling flies in the face of that intent. We are very disappointed, and we are currently seeking other legal remedies and options that that may be available.”

Spadafore said that includes seeking a re-hearing and, possibly, a new ruling next year when there will be a new justice serving on the Supreme Court.

Republican Justice Stephen Markman retires at the end of this term and will be replaced by Democrat Elizabeth Welch, who was elected to a six-year term on the court on November 3rd.