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Michigan House Republicans willing to hold up relief funding for schools to limit Whitmer power

Students at work at tables in a math class at Detroit’s Southeastern High School,
Michigan House GOP members have released a COVID-19 recovery plan that invests in schools, but the plan comes with strings attached. Photo taken in 2019.
Anthony Lanzilote/Chalkbeat

Seeking to rein in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her administration’s power to close schools and restrict sports during the pandemic, Michigan House Republicans released a plan to hold up distribution of $2.1 billion in federal and state coronavirus relief aid.

Schools would only get the money if the governor supports a bill that would eliminate her power to open and close schools and halt sports activities during a public health emergency. Instead, the bill would give that power exclusively to local health departments and school districts.

The GOP plan, which was released hours before Whitmer delivers her State of the State address Wednesday night, includes $363 million for districts that commit to reopen for in-person instruction by Feb. 15. The plan also includes $135 million for voluntary, in-person summer school, and $15 million for programs before and after school.

Whitmer has been under intense pressure from student athletes, coaches, parents, school leaders, and lawmakers because of the limitations she’s placed on school sports activities. The criticism ramped up last week when the state extended a ban on school winter contact sports until Feb. 21.

The extension prompted Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to write Whitmer that the inability to play is “causing undue harm” to student athletes. He cautioned she would likely face legal action.

On Wednesday, State Sen. Dale Zorn, a Republican from Ida, introduced a resolution urging Whitmer to lift the suspension of winter contact sports.

Republicans in the legislature have opposed many of the restrictions Whitmer has put in place to curb the pandemic, including those limiting restaurants and businesses.

Whitmer has imposed fewer restrictions on the opening and closing of schools. She ordered campuses shut down last spring when the pandemic hit. But for the fall she largely left reopening decisions up to schools, only limiting reopening in areas of the state that were hit hard by the pandemic. In November, as positive COVID-19 cases surged across the state, her administration ordered high schools statewide closed for weeks, lifting the order in late December. Earlier this month, she urged schools to reopen by March 1.

Whitmer herself doesn’t have the power to shut down schools, but she can take such actions through the state’s health agency.

State Rep. Thomas Albert, a Republican from Lowell who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that students need to be back in school for face-to-face instruction.

“Some Michigan school districts haven’t had in-person classes since March — that’s hurting kids in ways we can’t even imagine, and not just academically,” Albert said. “The disruption of sports and other extracurricular activities also takes a major toll. It’s going to take years for some of these students to recover academically. I will do everything possible to get kids safely in the classroom now.”

Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, said federal money for learning “should not be used as a bargaining chip.

“A bipartisan vote of Congress sent $1.6 billion in aid to Michigan schools and district leaders need that money to be appropriated now — without caveat or consideration of politics.”

The money, Kerr said, ensures schools can plan for in-person classes, remedial education, summer programs, and the purchase of personal protective equipment.

“The debate among adults about separation of powers and decision-making authority should not hold hostage these desperately needed funds for our schools and, ultimately, Michigan’s children.”

Whitmer “is ready and eager to work with Republicans in the legislature to pass a bipartisan economic recovery plan” that helps vaccinate educators and puts more dollars into classrooms, Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement. “This is not the time for partisan games. It’s time to get to work.”

Whitmer’s state address begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday. You can watch here.

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