Michigan Judge Rules State Budget Funding Cannot Aid Private Schools

May 14, 2018

In what’s being viewed as a victory for public school groups and a blow for private schools and religious organizations, Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens recently ruled that Michigan’s 2016 and 2017 budget laws are in violation of the state constitution, which prohibits both direct and indirect funding from being given to private schools.

Michigan previously approved a $5 million distribution of state funding to be distributed over a two-year period to private schools to cover the costs of mandates such as fire drills, immunizations, inspections, and other state requirements. But the Michigan Association of School Boards and other groups that represented districts, administrators, and parents filed a lawsuit in March 2017 contesting the decision.

The state tried to argue that because the funding was being used to promote the safety, health, and welfare of students, rather than for educational purposes. But Judge Stephens ruled that using public funding for private schools was unconstitutional, as providing money to offset the costs of compliance “supports the employment of nonpublic school employees” and gives a “significant degree of control” to private schools.

While it’s been more than 200 years since the nation’s constitution was created, the state of Michigan’s first constitution was written nearly 50 years later. Michigan’s current constitution was approved by voters in the early 1960s. A voter-approved amendment to the state’s constitution, passed in 1970, prohibited public money to aid parochial and private schools. While approximately 5,488,000 students from pre-K through grade 12 attend private schools nationwide, roughly 100,000 students attend Michigan private schools.

Some religious groups, such as the Michigan Catholic Conference, argue that the ban against private schools is anti-Catholic and actually stands in violation of the U.S. Constitution. But proving that would be difficult, explain experts, as there are a multitude of reasons as to why the government does not want to support private schools. And despite Betsy DeVos’s time in the limelight, it’s been made clear that the majority of state voters do not want public funds to be used for private schools at all.

Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Michigan, said after the ruling: “The constitution is clear that public money should only be used for public schools. Today’s ruling sends a message to lawmakers that public dollars cannot fund private interests,” adding that, had the decision gone the other way, it would have diverted “tax dollars from public education at precisely the time when our public schools need resources the most.”

Judge Stephens denied the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit and ordered the state to not distribute any of the money that had been previously set aside for private school use. It’s not yet clear as to whether the state will appeal her ruling.



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