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5 things you should know about the Michigan GOP’s long-awaited education budget

Michigan schools won’t get a lot more money for at-risk students or a major investment in preschool. But they might just get a budget.

State lawmakers last week passed a $15.2 billion education budget that includes small increases for special education and English learners, and doesn’t rely on a gas tax hike that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed in March. Indeed, very little the proposal bears any resemblance to Whitmer’s plan.

Whitmer hasn’t said whether she’ll veto the bill. A spokesperson did not return a request for comment on Monday.

Drawing on a growing consensus among Michigan educators, Whitmer wanted to move toward a weighted funding formula, which would send additional money to districts that enroll more disadvantaged students, such as English learners and students with special needs. She also proposed a major funding increase for Michigan’s preschool program for four-year-olds from low-income families.

Neither is included in the education budget proposal approved by the legislature, although the budget is slightly larger than last year’s.

Schools have been in the dark for months about how much money they’re getting from the state this year, forcing them to hold off on hiring and making big purchases.

This proposed education budget is the best indication yet of how much schools will actually receive. Here are five things to look out for as negotiations come down to the wire:

1. Some say this is a drop in the bucket.

The years since 2000 have seen a sharp decline in school funding, when accounting for inflation.

“Over the last 15 years, the average district’s per pupil funding has declined 25% after adjusting for inflation, and funding for high-needs kids has seriously eroded,” said David Arsen, a professor at Michigan State University who studies school finances in Michigan.

Michigan’s academic results have been worsening for 20 years, when compared with other states. Today, the state is in the bottom third of all states in fourth-grade reading and in the bottom 10 for math.

Last year, a bipartisan group of experts called for a sweeping overhaul of the way Michigan funds schools. Implementing their suggestions — including a full weighted funding formula — could cost an additional $3 billion per year.

This budget adds just under $400 million — a fraction of that amount.

“The legislature’s budget fails to make progress toward adequate school funding,” Arsen said.

2. Biggest schools budget ever?

Republicans are touting this education budget as the largest in state history. There’s no question that the state education budget has been growing for years.

Take inflation into account, however and it’s a different story.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) underlined the point in a tweetstorm last week:

3. What if the rest of the budget gets vetoed?

Unlike past years, the education budget this year is separate from the rest of the state budget. Whitmer can sign both, just one, or neither.

If there’s an impasse over funding for Michigan’s crumbling roads and Whitmer decides to veto the state’s general budget, she could still sign off on the proposed education budget.

The state government will shut down if Whitmer doesn’t approve the state general budget by Oct. 1, even if she approves the education budget.

4. How are we paying for this?

The budget passed by the Republican-controlled legislature would boost education funding by 2.7%, or $343 million. A substantial part of the funding will be clawed back from Michigan’s universities and community colleges, said Craig Thiel, research director for Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

He said that about $150 million in the schools budget that was previously spent on higher education would be brought back to K-12 schools.

The higher education budget proposed by the legislature is roughly the same as last year’s, buttressed by an extra $150 million from the general fund — the pot of money used for things like the prison system, foster care, and public safety.

Whitmer had hoped that a gas tax hike would help pay for improvements to schools in roads, but Republican lawmakers rejected that idea.

5. What are the selling points of the legislature’s budget?

Per-pupil funding

The budget proposal would use $304 million to provide per pupil funding increases of up to $240, or 3%. That’s slightly more than Whitmer had requested, although the overall budget is substantially smaller than Whitmer’s proposal.

Special education

A $60 million increase in special education funding represents a 2% increase. (Whitmer had proposed a 4% increase.)

Nonetheless, Michigan will continue taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of general education funding to pay for special education.

English learners

Lawmakers want to spend an additional $10 million on students who speak English as a second language. That’s a tiny amount in the grand scheme of the budget, but it’s welcome news to advocates who say students need extra support in the classroom to catch up to their English-speaking peers.

No new taxes

Whitmer had hoped to raise new revenue for the budget by increasing the state’s gasoline tax by 45 cents.

That proposal was quickly shot down by the Republican-controlled legislature, which opted for a small increase in school funding — and no new tax.

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