Judge Rules Michigan Can’t Give State Funds to Private Schools

(CN) – A Michigan judge ruled Thursday that $5 million in appropriations to private and religious schools to comply with state requirements is unconstitutional in part because the funding would go to pay private employees.

Last year, public education leaders and parent groups alleged that Governor Rick Snyder was violating the Michigan Constitution by using public money for appropriations for private and religious-affiliated schools to cover the costs of fire-drill inspections and other state mandates.

The groups, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, argued that two $2.5 million line items in the state budget for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years diverted public money from the state’s public school system to parochial and private schools.

Supporters of the appropriations say they are vital for public health and safety.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Grand Rapids filed a lawsuit last month against Snyder and the Michigan Department of Education, asking a judge to strike down a 1970 statute of that prohibits the use of public funds for private schools. The filing argued that it needed the ongoing appropriations to cover the costs of criminal background checks, fire and tornado drills, and other health and safety regulations, according to an MLive report.

But Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens delivered a victory for the ACLU and the parent groups by issuing a preliminary injunction against the disbursement of disputed funds in July 2017.

On Thursday, she made last year’s order final.

“The court agrees that this nature of the aid renders the statute unconstitutional on its face,” Stephens wrote in a 14-page opinion.

ACLU of Michigan’s Deputy Legal Director Dan Korobkin said the court had sent a strong message that public money should only be used for public, not private, schools.

“Not only is this an attempt to divert tax dollars to private schools in violation of the Constitution, but it diverts tax dollars away from public schools at a time when our public schools really need those resources more than ever,” Korobkin said in a phone interview.

Judge Stephens rejected the state’s attempt to label the funds as health and safety appropriations, instead of educational funds, writing that the funds are “expressly linked to wages owed to nonpublic employees.”

“Here, in contrast to firefighters and police officers, who by a nonpublic school, MCL 388.1752b provides funds to offset the cost of compliance for work done by nonpublic school employees. The court agrees with plaintiffs that this supports the employment of nonpublic employees,” Stephens wrote.

Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill Disessa declined to comment and referred Courthouse News to the state attorney general’s office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Tanya Baker, a spokesman for Governor Snyder, said they are reviewing the case and declined to say whether the governor’s office would appeal.

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