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Education

Whitmer signs "historic" $17.1 billion education budget

whitmer_ed_bill_signing.jpg
Dustin Dwyer
/
Michigan Radio

Tuesday afternoon in the library at East Kentwood High School, Governor Gretchen Whitmer sat at a table surrounded by students and signed a statewide education budget bill 27 years in the making.

The bill calls for $17.1 billion in spending on preschool-12 schools in Michigan in the upcoming year, an increase of $1.6 billion compared to last year, with no increase in taxes.

The bill also guarantees each school district will receive at least $8,700 in funding per student from the state. And, for the first time since 1994, all public school districts will get the same minimum funding.

“We’ve been chasing this goal longer than any of these students have been alive,” Whitmer said, nodding toward the students gathered in the East Kentwood library. “Today we get to realize it.”

In 1994, Michigan voters approved Proposal A, which dramatically changed how the state funded its public schools. A key goal of the proposal was to eliminate massive gaps in funding between school districts.

Prior to Proposal A, school funding was determined at the local level. Some local governments in Michigan spent lavishly on education, while others spent little. In 1993, voters in Kalkaska eliminated school funding altogether, creating a crisis which eventually led to the passage of Proposal A.

Under Proposal A, funding for schools would flow mainly through the state, and the state would guarantee a minimum amount of funding per pupil. But the state decided it didn’t want to punish districts that had decided to spend more, so it came up with a formula to make up some of the difference.

In the 1994-1995 school year, that formula resulted in some districts getting as much as $2,300 more per student than the districts with the lowest funding, according to a Michigan Senate fiscal analysis. Since then, the funding gap has been steadily narrowing, but it hasn’t gone away. Not until now.

“Closing this funding gap means that every district can hire more top notch teachers and bring on more nurses and psychologists and school social workers to help our students,” Whitmer said Tuesday. “It means updated textbooks and upgraded facilities and new sports equipment.”

It does not mean, however, that all funding gaps in the state will be eliminated. Local communities can still raise additional funds beyond the state’s minimum funding allowance to pay for technology upgrades and infrastructure. The state also offers additional funding to some districts based on their needs, including for special education.

“Equal funding does not mean we’ve achieved equity. We have more work to do in that space,” Whitmer said Tuesday. “We recognize that funding should increase with student need.”  

In addition to the $8,700 in per pupil funding, the budget bill Whitmer signed Tuesday includes:

  • $240 million for schools to hire psychologists, nurses and social workers in the districts with the greatest need.
  • An increase of $32.5 million to expand the state’s Great Start Readiness preschool program for 4 year olds.
  • $155 million from the American Rescue Plan for reading “scholarships” to pay for tutoring and other materials for students struggling with reading proficiency.
  • $135 million in grants and additional per-pupil funding for districts that operate year-round.

In addition to the increases in the annual education budget, the state has also approved $4.4 billion in extra funding for COVID relief.

"The pandemic caused a unique kind of tension that I hope we will never experience again," said East Kentwood student Keanta Simeneta.

One student who spoke at the governor’s signing ceremony Tuesday said she hopes the additional investments will help students recover from a tumultuous year.

“For the last year, life has been incredibly unpredictable,” said Keanta Simeneta, a student at East Kentwood High School. She said her school operated virtually for much of the year, and even when students returned, they feared getting a call that would send them into quarantine, disrupting their lives once again.

“Many students were left feeling isolated, helpless and hopeless,” Simeneta said. “The pandemic caused a unique kind of tension that I hope we will never experience again.”

Even as the governor and other education leaders celebrated the bipartisan budget, there was recognition that more will need to be done to support students and educators in the coming years.

“After decades of inequity and dramatic underfunding for public education, one fiscal year budget will not fix all of the problems that years of disinvestment has brought on our students, our educators and our communities,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association. Herbart also attended the signing ceremony on Tuesday.

But Herbart said she hopes the investments made in this year’s budget have an impact, and help make the case going forward for the importance of education funding in Michigan. 

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