Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
The 2016-2017 omnibus school aid, community college, and higher education appropriations bills passed by the Michigan House of Representatives and Michigan Senate would both appropriate approximately $185 million from the School Aid Fund for community college operations.
Article 9, section 11 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963 specifies that the School Aid Fund “shall be used exclusively for aid to school districts, higher education, and school employees’ retirement systems.” (Emphasis added). In other words, the money in the School Aid Fund may be used only for three specific purposes: (1) primary and secondary education, (2) state universities, and (3) public school employees’ retirement plans. None of these purposes includes community college operations.
In Michigan law, the term “higher education” has a unique meaning, and does not include community colleges. The Michigan Constitution explicitly differentiates between institutions of “higher education” (typically four-year state universities with the authority to grant baccalaureate degrees) and “community and junior colleges.” These entities possess different constitutional powers, have dissimilar organizational structures, and are treated separately for purposes of funding. Likewise, the Michigan Legislature has routinely recognized that community colleges are distinct from institutions of higher education. Indeed, even the omnibus appropriations bills cited above clearly differentiate between “community colleges” and “higher education.”
Nevertheless, despite the settled legal differences between “community colleges” and “higher education,” the Michigan Legislature appears ready to divert about $185 million from the School Aid Fund to finance community college operations for the upcoming fiscal year. It did the same thing last year as well. This is something that the Legislature is not constitutionally authorized to do.
I am certainly not opposed to community colleges. They provide excellent, cost-effective education for thousands of Michigan students. Community colleges are an important part of our education system, and should certainly be supported by the state. At the same time, however, the Michigan Constitution restricts the use of School Aid Fund dollars to precisely three purposes—none of which includes community college operations. Our state constitution must be applied as written or it will begin to lose all meaning.