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Budget surplus prompts Gov. Whitmer to beef up her spending proposal for Michigan students

Gov. Whitmer in hard hat and vest with construction machinery in background at road building site
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, seen here at a road construction site in Saginaw on May 27, 2021, wants to send $500 million in one-time funding to Michigan school districts for facilities improvements.
State of Michigan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for the state to close the funding gap between schools in poor and wealthy communities by adding more state funds to billions in federal COVID-19 relief money already earmarked for Michigan districts.

That proposal is part of a wide-ranging expansion of her school spending proposal, which comes as state economists project a $3.5 billion surplus in the state budget. Whitmer will be able to make the case for new school spending directly to Republican lawmakers, who agreed last week to include her in budget negotiations after she moved to lift all pandemic restrictions by July.

“Thanks to the surplus we now have an ability to close this gap once and for all, giving all students a level playing field,” she said.

Thomas Albert, chair of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee, said that although Whitmer’s proposal shares some aspects with the House proposal, her plan doesn’t put enough money toward the state’s educator pension system.

“The House budget prioritizes mental health, special education, and continuing to close the funding gap between districts,” he said. “I am encouraged to see the governor recognize these priorities and build upon them. However, as we move forward, I hope the governor will recognize structural concerns to school finance in regard to pension costs.”

Whitmer’s proposal includes recommendations for increased state spending as well as suggestions for how the state should spend its share of COVID-19 relief funds. Supporters of her plan said that increases in state spending could allow some initiatives begun using COVID-19 funds to continue after the federal dollars expire, likely in 2024. Compared with her February budget proposal, Whitmer is recommending that the state spend hundreds of millions more on schools.

Here are some key elements of the plan:

  • All schools would receive $8,692 per pupil at a cost of more than $664 million. This represents more than a 4% increase in base payments to schools; her previous budget proposal called for a 2% increase.
  • School facilities across the state would get $500 million in onetime upgrades, distributed based on community needs.
  • The state would spend $100 million for students who need extra support, including students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, students in isolated rural districts, and career and technical education students. Whitmer’s proposed increases are roughly double her February proposal.
  • Districts with declining enrollment would get $350 million over the next two years to cover 70% of the cost of each lost student. That’s a 75% increase over her previous proposal.
  • Districts would receive $450 million to hire more school psychologists, social workers, counselors, and nurses. These positions would need to be funded completely by the districts within four years.
  • The state would spend $50 million to subsidize the cost of teacher preparation programs in high-need fields such as special education and mathematics, plus another $50 million to reimburse student debt for teachers who work in high-need districts or fields.

Some of those proposals were included in her initial budget recommendations in February, but are sharply increased in this version.

One year ago, at the outset of the pandemic, state economists predicted a $3 billion shortfall in the state budget, which would likely have required sharp cuts to school budgets.

Then federal relief funding and increased consumer spending propelled the state’s economy into a U-turn.

“This is a massive opportunity to address decades of chronic underfunding in our schools and we cannot squander it,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association. “I’m pleased Republican legislative leaders have committed to working with the governor on next year’s budget – together, we can ensure decisions that value our students and educators by funding a quality public education in every community. “

Whitmer’s funding recommendations are based on her administration’s blueprint for helping students recover from the academic and social costs of the pandemic. The proposals, which were developed by a panel of 29 Whitmer-appointees and released last week, called for increased spending on school staff such as school nurses, and increased financial incentives for prospective teachers.

Kevin Polston, the chair of that panel and superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in suburban Grand Rapids, said the governor’s new spending plan is key to helping students recover from the pandemic regardless of their background.

“Zip code shouldn’t define school funding, school facilities, or opportunity for our children,” he said. “Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas. The blueprint provides a clear plan and now is the time to execute it.”

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