In Defense of Public Education

POST BY Kristin Totten Education Attorney

Michigan public education is being eroded – through the advancement of for-profit charter schools, by way of threats of school closures, and now with the diversion of public school funding to private schools. 

Last week, in an effort to stem this erosion, the ACLU of Michigan joined with groups such as Michigan Parents for Schools and 482 Forward and a host of education leaders to file a lawsuit challenging a new law that allows tax dollars to be taken away from public schools and given to private and religious schools.

This isn’t just a fight over tax dollars, however. It’s also a fight to save the future public education and the principles upon which the system rests, principles that hold that no matter where they come from —whether rich or poor, black or white, disabled or neurotypical—all of our children deserve a fair chance at a quality public education. 

The action comes after the Legislature in Michigan last year passed a law to give $2.5 million to private and parochial schools in Michigan—despite the fact that the state Constitution expressly prohibits the direct and indirect use of public funds for non-public schools. 

Even though he himself expressed doubts about whether the bill to divert tax money to private and religious schools could withstand constitutional scrutiny, Gov. Snyder signed the measure into law anyway.  

The law puts our state on a slippery slope toward violating the bedrock principle of separation of religion and government.

It also opens the door for untenable funding schemes such as vouchers, which have been advocated by those such as current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos but also roundly rejected by voters. Nearly 70 percent of Michiganders rejected vouchers last time the issue was put to a vote.

Private and parochial schools have no business receiving public money and certainly not at a time when so many public schools are reeling from a dearth of resources.

But there’s more at stake here than money. As New York Times journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones stated, “public” stood not just for how something was financed—with the tax dollars of the citizens—but for a communal ownership of institutions and for a society that privileged the common good over individual advancement: “Once public schools existed to create a shared purpose and strengthen our nation.  These days, many parents think only about how their own children can get a step ahead.” 

Hannah-Jones’ piece also recalls that, after legal segregation was struck down in Brown v. Board of Education, states and local governments circumvented the integration requirement and enabled white parents to receive vouchers to pay for placing their “privileged” children into private schools.  We cannot go back.

Michiganders who desire to strengthen public education and its intended commitment to advancing the common good must remain vigilant. We’ve lost enough ground already through the proliferation of for-profit charters and the spread of school closures and the efforts to install misguided funding programs.

Public education demands that we stand united to ensure that all of our children have a place where they are welcomed, cherished, and educated—together. 

Private and parochial schools have no business receiving public money and certainly not at a time when so many public schools are reeling from a dearth of resources.