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Michigan Senate lawmakers spar before passing $21 billion school aid budget

Desks in a classroom.

The Michigan Senate approved its version of the school aid budget along party lines Thursday.

Mint Images / Getty Images

Lawmakers in the Michigan Senate sparred Thursday over a nearly $21 billion school spending plan that was hailed by Democrats as putting students and teachers first and derided by Republicans as sending too much money to initiatives that won’t improve learning.

The plan ultimately passed in the Senate on a 20-17 vote.

Like a Michigan House plan that was approved a day before, the Senate plan includes increased per-pupil funding, plus major spending to provide school meals to all students, and to increase funding for at-risk students and students with special education needs. The budgets also include significant increases in spending for early childhood education, programs to help students get back on track academically, mental health programs, and career and technical education.

Sen. Darrin Camilleri, a Democrat from Trenton, lauded the proposal’s inclusion of a 6% increase in the per-pupil foundation amount, which would bring it up to $9,700. The plan approved by the House would bring that amount up to $9,516. He also noted that the budget fully funds special education.

“We set out to create a budget with students and teachers at the forefront,” said Camilleri, who chairs the Senate Pre-K12 appropriations subcommittee. “And I am proud to say that we delivered on that promise.”

Sen. Lana Theis, a Republican from Brighton who voted no, said the budget ignored what she called a “crisis” in the education system.

“Student achievement is lacking. Parents are being ignored. Teachers are fleeing the profession. Time-tested solutions to strengthening school security and response are being ignored. Unfortunately, this budget doesn’t do much to address or resolve these problems,” Theis said.

She specifically called out a proposal in the Senate budget for $160 million to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all public school children. Currently, only students from low-income homes receive free school meals. Federal funding during the first two years of the pandemic that covered meals for all students has dried up.

Democrats rejected a Theis amendment that would have extended the universal meal access to private schools. It was one of more than two dozen amendments Republicans suggested to the school aid budget that failed.

“Every student in a public school is going to be eligible for a free lunch, even if mom and dad make millions,” Theis said. “But if mom and dad are scraping by so their children can go to a nonpublic school, well, their kids’ lunches are on them.”

Responding to Theis’ criticism, Camilleri said many wealthy parents send their children to private schools, so he sees no problem with providing meals to all public school students.

The House and Senate budget proposals attempt to move the state closer to a more equitable funding system that acknowledges that some students are more expensive to educate than others. Currently, a district’s per-pupil amount is increased by 11.5% for each at-risk student. Under the Senate plan, schools would continue to receive the additional 11.5%, but for those with the largest concentrations of children from low-income homes, the added payment would be as much as 15.3%. The House proposal would give districts an increase of 35% for at-risk students.

Students are identified as at risk based on a number of factors, including if they come from low-income families, are English language learners, are chronically absent, or are a victim of child abuse or neglect.

A number of studies in recent years have called out Michigan’s school funding system as being inadequate, particularly for the most vulnerable children. Earlier this year, the Education Trust-Midwest, an education research and advocacy organization based in Royal Oak, proposed a system that would provide even bigger increases than the last few budgets have for districts with large concentrations of children from low-income families and children who are English language learners.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said she supports the historic nature of the Senate proposal, including the way it provides additional funding for the most vulnerable children.

But she said the proposals “should be considered the beginning — not the end — of a conversation on overhauling Michigan’s unfair school funding system so that Michigan moves in the direction of a system that provides opportunity and access for all groups of students to achieve at high levels.”

Among the other Republican proposals that failed Thursday were restoring funding that helps schools hire school resource officers, eliminating funding for electric school buses, and eliminating funding to the Eastpointe school district that would pay for a new swimming pool.

Senate Republicans also pushed to restore funding for cyber charter schools. Cyber charters, where students attend school fully online, receive the same base amount of per-pupil funding as brick-and-mortar schools. But some have objected to that — including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican predecessor, Rick Snyder — because cyber charters don’t have the same building, transportation, and other costs as schools that educate students in person. Charter school advocates have successfully pushed back attempts to reduce their funding — until this year.

The House proposal would keep funding for Michigan’s online charter schools at the current amount of $9,150 per pupil, while the Senate budget would cut their funding to $7,760 per pupil. 

Sen. Joseph Bellino, a Republican from Monroe, said cyber charter schools provide an important option for some students.

“They’re children … Some have been bullied, some of them have disabilities, a high percentage come from low-income families, some only feel comfortable with an online setting,” Belllino said. “I urge my members to support all types of learning.”

Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred Thursday over an amendment Theis recommended that would allow schools to use their safety funding to purchase automated external defibrillators and trauma kits. The latter suggestion rankled Dems.

A typical school trauma kit is an advanced first aid kit containing equipment and supplies to treat a person with major injuries.

Sen. Sarah Anthony, a Democrat from Lansing, called the amendment “disingenuous” and said “school safety is a real and serious issue and should not be politicized.”

Both Democrats and Republicans pointed to reports of a third-grader in Grand Rapids bringing a gun to school this week, the fourth child to do so this school year. The latest incident prompted the district to announce it is banning backpacks.

Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican from Waucedah Township, said he was puzzled by the discussion over safety funding.

“Why are we shouting at each other over defibrillators and the ability to have trauma kits in school?” he asked.

Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat from Royal Oak, noted that Republicans had earlier this year opposed legislation to require the safe storage of firearms. The legislation passed and Whitmer signed it into law.

“Providing trauma kits acknowledges that you accept a reality in which kids have to be prepared to be shot,” McMorrow said.

Because there are considerable differences in the Senate and House plans, a conference committee will have to work on bridging the gaps. 

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief of Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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