From diapers to doctorates: How Whitmer’s budget expands support for all stages of education

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Improving the quality and affordability of education in Michigan has been a top priority for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who’s rolled out a budget proposal to that end.

The governor’s Fiscal Year 2021 plan released Thursday offers $15.9 billion investment for the School Aid budget — a 4.9% increase from last year. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and Budget Director Chris Kolb (right) discuss her FY 2021 budget | Laina G. Stebbins

Michigan hasn’t seen a boost in education like this in the last two decades, she said. 

“I am really proud of the investments that we are making in education. This has been a top priority for me for a long time,” Whitmer said. “As a parent, as the governor of this great state, and as someone who wants to ensure that everyone has a path to a good life here in Michigan, we are promoting the largest funding increase in the classroom and for operations in 20 years. We are ensuring that our students and educators have the resources that they’re going to need to be successful.”

After just getting out of a contentious battle with the GOP-led Legislature over the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Whitmer is pushing hard for a total restructuring of education funding in Michigan. From young children to recent graduates, her proposed FY 2021 budget includes increases that would affect students in every stage of education. 

“While we cannot correct decades of underfunding overnight, particularly in the area of education, this budget builds on last year’s budget to provide additional funding,” Whitmer said in a statement.

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One of the governor’s biggest priorities is changing the weighted school funding formula, a $415 million investment, which she said will put more money in schools that have the greatest needs. 

But a breakdown of the School Aid budget shows there are many other areas that are seeing an increase in funding for students and teachers at all stages in their education.

Making child care and preschool affordable

The lack of affordable child care is one of the greatest barriers for low‐income parents or guardians who are in school. As the Advance first reported before Whitmer’s State of the State speech last week, she’s proposing some significant funding increases to tackle that problem.

The governor’s proposed budget increases the Michigan’s Child Development and Care (CDC) program income eligibility threshold from 130% to 150% of the federal poverty level, which would allow about 5,900 more children to receive child care services. The budget proposal includes $27 million in total for the CDC program.

As it stands in the FY 2020 budget, the income eligibility threshold in Michigan is tied for second lowest in the country, at 130% of the federal poverty level. 

Also in the proposed budget, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), which provides free preschool services to income-eligible four-year-olds, has greater support. 

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The new budget plans to expand state-provided preschool services, especially in high-need areas. The GSRP Expanded Access program will cost $42 million. The budget will also increase the per child rate in these preschool programs from $7,250 to $8,336 to match the minimum foundation allowance for K-12 students. Per child rates in preschools have not been increased since 2014. 

Improving literacy for young students

For the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Whitmer wanted to improve literacy and tripled the number of literacy coaches who work with teachers to improve early literacy instruction.

Now Whitmer wants to expand on this program by investing $3 million for literacy essentials, such as training for coaches, principals and statewide coordination. 

She wants $19.9 million spent in other early literacy grants to districts to increase reading proficiency by the end of a child’s third grade year. 

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Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed the Read by Grade Three law, which requires school districts to hold back students who do not meet reading proficiency standards. 

Whitmer is critical of this law, and said during her State of the State address the law is “punitive” and could be a nightmare for families. However, Republicans like state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have said they don’t want to repeal it.

Supporting districts and teachers in the classroom

In efforts to minimize the teacher shortage that is hurting schools across the state, the proposed budget makes a greater investment into teacher recruitment.

There is an additional $1.5 million to help existing teacher cadet programs, create new programs and encourage recruitment of quality teachers in the classroom. 

Also new for FY 2021 is a proposed $25 million teacher supplies program to reimburse educators who spend money out-of-pocket to purchase supplies for their classrooms. The program will provide funding to the districts, which will then distribute an estimated $250 to eligible teachers.

Study: Michigan teachers spend $628 of their own money on school supplies

Data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a liberal Washington, D.C. think tank, show Michigan teachers shell out an average of $628 of their own money on classroom supplies every year.

This is the second highest amount in the country, only behind teachers in California, and is almost $200 more than the national average of $459.

“This is something that is going to really make a difference in the classroom for students and help teachers who are trying to do the right thing,” Whitmer said. “And that means doing everything in their power to make sure our kids are getting a good education.”

Professional development programs would see a $5 million investment for  peer-to-peer learning networks and to connect with universities for professional growth and development.

In addition, the budget proposal allots $1 million to offset districts’ burden of student meal debt.

According to a report from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national nonprofit based in Arlington, Va., that represents school nutrition professionals, the average district has about $2,000 to $2,500 worth of unpaid lunch debt. 

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Increasing access and lowering costs for higher ed 

Whitmer says she wants to make sure college is more affordable for working families and students, but she understands this is going to take a lot of effort. 

“We’ve got more work to do. The investments that we’re making in higher education don’t undo years of underfunding in that space and years of increases that our college students are bearing or are completely unable to navigate,” Whitmer said. 

In efforts to make tuition costs more affordable, she proposed community colleges see an increase of $8.1 million, bringing the recommended funding up to $433.8 million. 

The $8.1 million increase is allocated among the state’s 28 community colleges using a formula that considers hours of instruction, degree and certificate completions, administrative costs, among other measures.

In Fiscal Year 2020, a $35 million supplemental established the Michigan Reconnect Grant program, which provides tuition-free opportunities for nontraditional students who are already in the workforce looking to obtain an industry certificate or associate degree.

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All remaining funds at the end of FY 2020 will be carried over and support the program through Fiscal Year 2021. 

“In my first ever State of the State, I set our goal at 60%, to ensure that 60% of our adults in the state possess a post secondary certificate or degree. The Michigan Reconnect is an important step toward meeting that,” Whitmer said. “But it’s not just about meeting a goal. It’s about making sure we have the concentration of talent so we can fill good paying jobs that are currently going unfilled.”

The governor’s budget recommendation also includes a tuition restraint provision in the community college budget to limit annual tuition and fee increases to 2.5 times the level of inflation in FY 2021. This will limit cost increases for community college students and slow down the costs of the Reconnect Program. 

Universities would receive a $36.5 million increase in Fiscal Year 2021, under Whitmer’s proposal. Funding for universities, which includes financial aid programs and retirement cost reimbursements, totals more than $1.7 billion.

But in order to receive the funding increase, each of the 15 public universities must commit to these requirements: 

  • Limit tuition and fee increases to 4.25%, or $586 per student, whichever is greater
  • Participate in the Michigan Transfer Network, which informs students how their credits will transfer in and out to other Michigan postsecondary education institutions
  • Participate in reverse transfer agreements with at least three community colleges. 
  • Must not consider whether dual enrollment credits were utilized for high school graduation when deciding to award university credit for those classes. 

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Helping students pay off student loans

Whitmer has outlined a new revolving loan fund she says will help alleviate student debt after college. Her budget proposal includes a $10 million investment to kick start the student loan refinance program. 

Through the program, qualified individuals will have the opportunity to refinance up to $50,000 of student loans with a lower fixed interest rate for loans of $5,000 or more. 

The minimal rate necessary will be determined by the Department of Treasury, but will make sure it covers the costs of the program and ensures growth and sustainability for future years.

The average student loan debt of Michigan college graduates in 2019 was $35,307. Michigan is in the top 10 states with the largest five‐year increase in student loan debt. 

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This wouldn’t be the first time Michigan would offer a student refinancing program. 

The Michigan Alternative Student Loan (MI‐Loan) Program was a private student loan program for students attending Michigan colleges and universities. The program was suspended in 2008 due to the mortgage crisis when investors were reluctant to buy more debt.

To be eligible for the new program, individuals must have a qualified student loan, resided in Michigan for at least 12 months prior to applying, be current and in good standing on payments for the three years prior to applying.