- Lawmakers pass education budget with heavy investment in at-risk students
- State universities and community colleges also saw a funding hike as budget now heads to governor
- Charter advocates were disappointed cyber schools did not receive an increase similar to traditional public schools
LANSING — The Michigan Legislature passed a $21.5 billion school K-12 budget Wednesday night that includes a significant funding increase for students considered to be “at risk” of not meeting educational goals.
It’s the first education budget since Democrats took full control of the Legislature and governor’s office this year, and reflects an aggressive approach to addressing significant learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among the state’s most vulnerable students.
Under the approved budget, which now heads to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, districts will receive more money in the upcoming school year for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners and students who receive special education, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis of Senate Bill 173.
The budget also funds free school meals for all students, expands eligibility for the state’s pre-K program and per pupil funding for tutoring.
Democrats hold slim majorities in both legislative chambers, but the K-12 measure passed with room to spare late Wednesday: by 29-8 in the Senate and then by 58-50 in the House.
Separately Wednesday, the Legislature also approved $2.8 billion in higher education budgets, which provide the state’s public universities and community colleges 5 percent operations increases.
Addressing ‘past wrongs’
More than half of Michigan students are considered economically disadvantaged. Advocates say the new K-12 funding will help the state better support school districts and their students.
“This year’s school aid budget represents a giant step toward righting past wrongs and ensuring that all Michigan students have access to an excellent public school education,” said Alice Thompson of the NAACP Detroit Branch, who co-chairs a coalition that advocates for school funding reform.
“The unprecedented funding for students with the greatest needs, particularly those living in concentrated poverty, will be tremendously important to address the wide and unfair opportunity gaps that exist for students who are most underserved, especially Michigan’s Black and Latino students.”
The new budget includes a 5 percent increase in the school “foundation allowance,” which is the base amount schools receive per student from the state. School districts will receive $9,608 for each student in the 2023-24 school year, an increase of $458.
The same increase will not be available to virtual schools, which will continue to receive $9,150 per student. Democrats and teachers’ unions have long argued that cyber schools require less money from the state because they don’t pay for buildings, transportation, sports or other extracurriculars as do traditional public schools.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public Schools Academies, a charter industry group, said online students deserve equal funding.
“Students in online schools include many of the most vulnerable students in the state, many of whom are minority students, LGBTQ students, children living in poverty and students facing medical challenges,” he said. “It would make no sense to fund students differently. That’s not who we are as a state. While we’ve made great progress, we’re not there yet. All kids deserve equal funding, and we will continue to advocate for that principle.”
The new K-12 budget sets aside $952 million in additional payments for districts with students deemed “at-risk.” That’s an increase of more than $200 million over what’s set aside in this year’s budget, which currently provides schools with 11.5 percent additional funding for each eligible student.
Schools will be allocated additional at-risk funding using an “opportunity index” that considers a district’s concentration of poverty, based on the number of economically disadvantaged students. That could mean an index boost of up to 15.3 percent for some schools.
Democratic lawmakers said they hope to raise at-risk funding even higher in the future.
“As we’ve seen from study after study from those in the field and education researchers, we need to get to higher levels of reimbursement for at-risk students,” Sen Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton, told Bridge Michigan. “And so we want to put a target in this budget to have at least 35 percent reimbursement be a goal for us in Michigan.”
Thompson and other education advocates in the Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity coalition urged policymakers to adopt a funding structure that aligns more closely with Massachusetts, which revamped its education funding in 2019 to provide more for low-income students.
Massachusetts and Michigan have similarly large achievement gaps between low-income and more affluent students on standardized tests. But low-income students in Massachusetts scored 11 points higher in fourth grade reading last year than Michigan’s low-income students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The gap was even worse among Black students, with those in Massachusetts testing 17 points higher.
Wednesday’s budget also provides fundings boosts to English language learners and for special education. Districts would receive 100 percent of base funding for students in special education, rather than 75 percent provided under the current budget.
“The budget finalized today represents a solid investment in schools for the upcoming year, but, more importantly, represents an investment in students for years to come,” said Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance, which represents more than 100 Michigan school districts.
“Funding for special education, at-risk students and universal meal programs will give more students additional opportunities to succeed both in and out of the classroom.”
Some Republicans were less enthusiastic.
Sen. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell said in a speech ahead of his no vote that Democrats’ school and general budgets “simply spends too much money and it is not sustainable.”
Sen Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, told Bridge he believed there should be some means testing for who should qualify for free school meals, and he called the award of $125 million for electrical school buses “a complete waste of money.”
Runestad also took issue with a $6 million appropriation for a diverse histories pilot, saying he worried the programs will “infuse a lot of indoctrination.”
Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-North Muskegon, who served on the conference committee for the school budget, was among the Republicans who voted for the K-12 budget.
“No budget is perfect,” he said ahead of the vote, but the negotiated deal reflects several Republican priorities.
“And just as Republicans did for many years in the majority, this budget makes a record investment in our schools.”
Longtime Detroit community activist Helen Moore, who has championed literacy programs in city schools and currently volunteers tutoring third-graders at Detroit Public Schools Community District’s Barton Elementary School, said it will take more money than the legislature is able to give in the upcoming school year to reverse years of underfunding.
“There is no answer for it. There’s not enough money to do it,” she said.
The budget includes $94.4 million to DPSCD as part of a literacy lawsuit settled in 2020. The settlement required Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to propose the funding but she needed legislative approval for the funds to be awarded.
The funding prohibits the district from using the funding to supplant other existing literacy programs and requires the school district to create a task force and spend funds in a way that aligns with the literacy settlement.