- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder is being pushed to veto $2.5 million in state spending that would assist private schools with the cost of complying with state requirements like employee background checks, immunization reporting and safety drills.

Public school groups say the funding is unconstitutional, while private school advocates contend that Michigan taxpayers should start covering schools’ mandated non-instructional expenses because the health and safety of all students is important.

The proposed funding is included in a $16.1 billion education budget bill that Snyder plans to sign Monday as part of a $54.9 billion overall spending plan. He has the authority to strike the private school money with a line-item veto.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Friday that the governor was aware of the legal question and was reviewing the provision “in that context.” If Snyder OKs the spending, he might still seek a legal opinion from the state Supreme Court or the attorney general’s office.

The aid is favored by Republicans in the GOP-led Legislature and organizations such as the Michigan Catholic Conference, the church’s policy arm.

“This has nothing to do with instruction or curriculum or funding teachers or anything like that,” said Tom Hickson, the group’s vice president for public policy and advocacy. “We believe the Legislature has a constitutional obligation to make sure the citizens of Michigan are safe. That includes all citizens … whether it’s children in a public or nonpublic school.”

But eight school organizations representing superintendents, principals, school boards and districts wrote a letter to the Republican governor on June 14 asking for the veto. They said some of the 44 mandates for which private schools could be reimbursed relate to instruction, such as requiring courses on civics, and cannot be publicly funded.

Many Democrats opposed the education budget in part because of the aid for private schools.

“I’m concerned that this is a slippery slope,” said Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores. “This isn’t a voucher per se, but it is sort of like the camel peeking its nose under the tent in terms of public money to private schools.”

A 1970 voter-approved amendment to Michigan’s constitution prohibits spending public money to directly or indirectly aid or maintain parochial and other private schools being attended by roughly 100,000 students. Courts have interpreted the amendment to bar state support for general educational programs unless the main effect is to further a “substantial” governmental purpose, according to an analysis conducted for the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

Jennifer Smith, government relations director for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said she would not be surprised if a lawsuit is filed if the funding is included in the budget.

“The private schools charge tuition. The public schools should be funded with the public dollars,” she said.

Supporters of the new funding counter that it is constitutionally permissible and it is not unprecedented for public dollars to finance the education of private school students. They already can receive “shared time” instruction from public school teachers in non-core classes.

The next budget will let both public and nonpublic schools apply for up to $950 per building to test water for lead in the wake of Flint’s crisis. For the second time in three years, private and public schools will be eligible to seek state grants to buy lockdown and other security equipment for their buildings.

Dave Faber, superintendent of the 30 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, said his schools would already follow many of the health and safety rules regardless of whether it was legally required. But he said state regulations have been multiplying, and schools could adhere to many “really well” and much more efficiently if not for cumbersome reporting requirements.

The results of fire, tornado and lockdown drills now must be published on school websites, for instance, and schools must give a list of scheduled drill dates to emergency management coordinators in advance.

“A lot of our small Catholic schools, we don’t have website coordinators. A lot of times it’s a teacher who’s doing this in addition to their teaching responsibilities. Or perhaps even in some cases it’s a parent who’s getting a stipend,” Faber said.

He said the $2.5 million - a quarter of an estimated $10 million annually that private schools may pay now to meet the mandates - “means a great deal to us” and would “allow our resources to go a lot further for our students and maybe not be stretched quite so thin.”

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert

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