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US Supreme Court decision could affect private school funding debate, court case in Michigan

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio

A U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday in a school choice case from Maine could play a role in the Michigan debate over private and public school funding. A divided court held that states offering subsidies to private schools cannot exclude religious schools.

There are critical differences between the circumstances in the Carson v. Makin case and Michigan’s school choice and charter school system. Maine allows families in sparsely populated areas that don’t have secondary schools to send students to private schools and have the state pay for it as long as the schools don’t offer religious instruction.

The 6-3 majority opinion by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts held that amounts to religious discrimination against families facing limited choices.

That could create an opening to challenge the Michigan Constitution’s clause that forbids direct public funding or indirect support such as tax breaks for private schools, said a prominent conservative constitutional lawyer.

“The analog here in Michigan is our charter school system,” said John Bursch, an attorney representing clients challenging the clause. “A private secular school can become a public school and receive public funding, but a private religious school is prohibited from doing the exact same thing.”

Bursch told Michigan Public Radio the decision could also clear the way for people to use tax-deductible education savings plans to pay religious school tuition.

The case, which is being heard by a federal judge in Grand Rapids, also claims the voter-approved amendment to the Michigan Constitution violates free speech and religious freedom rights in the U.S. Constitution.

But Michigan’s ban on public funding for non-public schools is among the most sweeping in the nation, said Dan Korobkin, the legal director of the ACLU of Michigan.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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