The Fight for Non-Public School Funding7 min read

On July 29, Michigan District’s video journalist Jeff Heisner interviewed Brian Broderick, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Non-public Schools (MANS) and Travis Grulke, Superintendent of Schools for the Michigan District, LCMS on the lawsuit filed by the State of Michigan challenging the US Department of Education’s rule on how federal funds are to be shared between public and non-public schools. This is an edited transcription of the video interview.

Heisner: Brian, why is fighting this lawsuit important?

Broderick: Well, it’s important because all schools, all students, all teachers, all families have been impacted by this pandemic across the country and particularly in our state. It’s important that the funds be equitably distributed there; they are relief funds in nature. That’s how Congress deemed them. They may have inartfully worded the language—that was done relatively quickly—in terms of how they’re going to get distributed amongst schools. But the bottom line is that they are meant as relief funds. And so those funds should rightfully be spread across both public and private schools on a proportionate basis.

Heisner: Travis, what do you want people to know about this?

Grulke: I think Brian hit it on the head. These funds were set aside for all students and non-public school students are just as important and valued here in Michigan as the public school students. So, what I think a lot of people don’t realize is the way this is termed now. We have so many of our non-public school students who will not be counted for a variety of reasons, because the way it’s set up now, it’s just your local public school district. Well, our non-public schools draw from a variety of districts and some from six, seven different districts. And if you were just counting your students in your non-public school that are just from your current public school district, we have so many more that aren’t being represented and we’re hoping this gets figured out soon. That’s why we’re joining in with MANS in this lawsuit and can hopefully get some resolution to this very quickly.

Heisner: Now, how do you see the mandate for the roadmaps for starting schools again? How is that affecting our schools?

Grulke: It’s affecting them across the board. Right now we’re in Phase 4 and so we anticipate the vast majority of our schools opening. What that means is there are a lot of things that have to be put into place for the cleaning, for the stuff that students need to have, for teachers, keeping them safe, all the different little regulations. So we were hoping that some of the CARES act fund, which was intended to help schools in this area, would be released and will be a financial blessing for our schools to allow them to do and purchase a lot of the things to take care of this.

Heisner: And how about you, Brian? What are you hearing right now?

Broderick: There’s just a lot of ores in the fire with regard to the preparedness plans that schools have to submit. I know the difference in the funding is very important. It’s about a $16 million difference in funding for private schools. If the lawsuit is successful, the non-public schools would have to take less money. That’s a $16 million hit—all money that can be used to help prepare schools to be open in the next couple of weeks. So that’s out there.

A lot of questions have come up with regard to how schools are supposed to respond to the roadmap. There are a lot of questions and nuances and fortunately, or unfortunately, the roadmap came out and I think it was geared towards large public school districts, large schools. It didn’t take into account a lot of the nuances that smaller schools have, particularly with the issue of being able to cohort grades, to keep them all together. At one time, the mandate that has come out on the roadmap is that grade 6 through 12 students have to be masked when they’re in a classroom. And we’ve asked questions to see if that could be changed or modified in any way. And simply the answer is no.

The other issue that we’re confronting is a great number of public school districts are going to start school virtually, whether it’s nine weeks or the whole semester. There is a lot of pressure going on from those school districts and in particular the MEA and the AFT—the large teacher unions in the state—to lobby the governor to make sure that all schools, public or private, start virtually as well. And a lot of that is sort of a competition fear, both competition from private schools that are going in person and competition with virtual charter schools that are available to parents. And we don’t think that that’s really something that the governor should undertake. All decisions to this date have been made, or we’ve been told they’ve been made, based on health data. And that should continue to be the posture. In fact, this morning we were reassured by the governor’s office that in fact they are being lobbied to have all schools start virtually, but they’re not interested in moving in that direction. So we took some good heart in that, for the time being.

Grulke: And I think what we’re fighting for all along is this: allow our local schools to make the best decisions for their families and their community, wherever they’re located. That’s what we’re looking for. Not a broad stroke of everybody’s closed, everybody’s going virtual. Some schools may make that decision that they’re going to start virtual, even non-public schools. So be it, but allow them to make that decision locally.

Heisner: This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, is it?

Broderick: Not at all. And that’s part of the issue with the roadmap and the response plans that schools have to come up with. Schools are all various sizes. You can have a thousand-person non-public school, and you can have a non-public school with 30 or 40 students in it. Their responses are going to be different. We have rural schools, urban schools, suburban schools, everybody’s got a different sort of criteria to what they’re doing and how they’re going to be able to open their schools this fall, or whether they go virtual. And so a one-size-fits-all mentality, albeit understandably easier to do, doesn’t necessarily work that well.

Heisner: So as of Wednesday afternoon, the governor did increase restrictions, especially in the Northern parts of our state. Do these new restrictions at all change what happens to our schools?

Broderick: They don’t. I asked that question this morning and [was told,] in a conversation with somebody in the governor’s office, that the restrictions in Northern Michigan are really geared towards bars and restaurants. Their health data is showing that increased cases of COVID are coming from people who are essentially being careless by going into bars and restaurants and not masking up, you know, that sort of socialization. It does not impact schools. So those areas in Northern Michigan are still considered to be in phase five, even though they have these kind of bar and restaurant restrictions on them; lower Michigan is all in phase four and has different restrictions on them, but the phases haven’t changed yet.

Heisner: I want to get back to that lawsuit. When is it possible to see a resolution?

Broderick: We think we’re going to see something in the next week or two. The case was filed by Michigan and a number of other States in the Northern district of California— the case is the States vs. the US Department of Education and Betsy DeVos. MANS was able to sign on to an Amicus brief that was filed by an outfit out of Wisconsin called the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty that is arguing really in favor of the ability of the US Department of Education to interpret what Congress put forth for funding. We anticipate that a ruling would probably come sometime [in the first week of August] because the Amicus brief that we signed onto was filed on July 28, which was the deadline. So we anticipate a pretty quick decision coming from them.

Grulke: And that’s crucial because our schools need to have those funds to get it figured out. So tying this up for the next two, three months helps nobody in terms of making sure those funds are released for schools.

Heisner: Thank you both for your time.

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This blog is published by the Communications Department of the Michigan District, LCMS.

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