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Can Michigan spend tax dollars on private schools? We've already said no.

Jul 14, 2016

Governor Rick Snyder did something sensible Wednesday – he asked the Michigan Supreme Court for an opinion as to whether it is legal under the Michigan Constitution for the state to use taxpayer dollars to provide aid to private schools.

In a sense, this is actually putting the cart before the horse, in that Snyder signed an education budget last month that includes a two and a half million dollar appropriation for private schools. At the time, he was urged to use his line-item veto to prevent that from happening, but he declined, saying he believed this was legal.

But it became clear almost immediately that the state was going to face a massive lawsuit over whether any aid to such schools is constitutional, and the governor clearly feels it’s better to know early.

The Supreme Court doesn’t have to issue an opinion on this, by the way, just because the governor is asking for one. He’s made similar requests in the past, and sometimes they’ve done so and other times, as in the case of Right to Work, they’ve declined.

This situation, however, is especially interesting – and in a sense, is a case of déjà vu all over again. To me, it seems clear that any use of taxpayer dollars for any private school for any purpose violates the state constitution.

And here’s why. Back in 1970, private schools in Michigan were mainly religious schools, most of them Roman Catholic. Michigan was a considerably richer state back then, and many politicians were in favor of helping them – and the parents who paid their tuition.

The legislature passed a law doing just that. The governor then happily signed it. Public Act 100 provided direct financial aid to these schools, with the stipulation that the money could only be used for instruction in non-religious subjects. However, all hell broke loose, no pun intended.

Angry opponents soon organized, and got a constitutional amendment on the ballot to outlaw any state aid of any kind to any, quote “private, denominational or other private, pre-elementary or secondary school.” Voters passed it by a landslide that fall.

That seemed to settle that – until now. Governor Snyder contends the bill he signed doesn’t violate that constitutional amendment because it doesn’t provide any money for educational expenses. All it is supposed to be used for is costs associated with state-mandated requirements like employee background checks and fire and safety code compliance.

Opponents, however, say this is a meaningless distinction, because the private schools can then use the money this frees up for whatever they want to, including religious instruction. To me, the language in the 1970 amendment is about as clear as it could be.

It says, quote, “no payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public money or property shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student or the employment of any person at any such private school or any location or institution where instruction is offered.”

I wonder if anyone asked those who passed this bill, “what part of no don’t you understand?” However, I don’t get to say what the law means. Michigan’s highest court does. Hopefully, in this case, they soon will give us an answer..

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.