Education groups say $1.3B GOP reopening plan is a ‘good start’

Susan J. Demas

Republicans in the State House and Senate rolled out their “Return to Learn” plan Tuesday which offers a list of policy recommendations and $1.3 billion of federal funding to Michigan schools to help safely reopen next school year. 

The plan includes an $800 bump for per-pupil funding, a $500 one-time hazard and overtime payment for teachers and $80 million dedicated to help intermediate school districts (ISDs) implement distance learning plans and safety measures.

Because of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on Michigan’s economy, we know K-12 funding will see major challenges,” said state Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.), who chairs the House Education Committee. “Our plan uses federal funds to provide students with stability, and it gives us time to plan future K-12 funding.”

Hornberger and State Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), who helped unveil the GOP plan, were two of nine representatives to introduce House Resolution 267 last month that would deny the state federal bailouts and financial relief during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. The resolution was referred to the Committee on Government Operations and hasn’t moved since May 27.

GOP lawmakers pop resolution against state bailout from D.C.

Peter Spadafore, Associate Executive Director for Advocacy and Communications at Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA), said the GOP’s plan could be “in the ballpark of what the national estimates for reopening are,” but says that that is contingent on if there will be more funding to cover the expected budget hole in the School Aid Fund. 

“We were pleased to see that the plan recognizes that there will be added costs to reopen schools next fall. What remains to be further explained and perhaps a bit unclear, is whether this 1.3 billion is on top of holding schools harmless to the negative revenue numbers that we’ve seen over the last couple of months,” Spadafore said. “If it’s $1.3 billion just to hold us harmless, that’s not going to be enough at all.”

The state’s School Aid Fund  — which primarily funds K-12 education — has taken a hit due to a revenue loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. The SAF budget is estimated to fall short by $1.2 billion, which would be a cut of about $650 per student. 

For the 2021 fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the School Aid Fund is expected to see another $1.1 billion shortfall. 

State faces $6.3B budget shortfall as COVID-19 craters revenues

Berman said the budget shortfalls will be covered.

“Despite this challenge, we must work to put our future generations in the best possible position to succeed,” Berman said. “Those efforts can’t stop. Not for a second. Not for a fiscal year. School resources must be held harmless, and that is what this plan works to do.”

The Association of School Business Officials International and the School Superintendents Association estimate that it will cost over $1.7 million for each district to reopen safely. 

These calculations assume the statistics for a school district with 3,659 students, eight school buildings, 183 classrooms, 329 staff members, and 40 school buses transporting at 25% capacity.

Per district, it’s estimated that health monitoring and disinfecting protocols will cost $116,950, hiring staff to implement health and safety protocols will cost $1.2 million, personal protective equipment will cost $194,045 and transportation and child care will cost $235,144.

The GOP’s plan also would change a number of policy details, including redefining “attendance” to mean that a student is engaged in instruction, rather than physically present, requiring schools to implement benchmark assessments to determine where students need additional help and limiting the use of snow days to encourage remote instruction when needed.  

Whitmer: K-12 schools will return to in-person learning in fall

Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools and Tri-County Alliance for Public Education president, said the plan is a “good start” but is critical of the benchmark assessment requirement. 

“While this plan doesn’t solve the $3.3 billion deficit schools are facing to reopen safely this fall, it’s a very good place to start that discussion and we appreciate the Republican leadership putting it on the table,” Greathead said. “We look forward to working with them to improve this plan by eliminating its focus on standardized testing at a time that isn’t helpful and to pass this and additional funding legislation in the coming weeks.”

Also under the plan, in-person learning would be required in the fall for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and school districts would be required to work with local health departments to develop health and safety standards.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced last week that schools could resume in-person learning and will be releasing her own plan for reopening schools on June 30. 

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said “it is encouraging to see Republicans in the legislature acknowledge that education funding and the flexibility to prioritize learning in a safe environment is critically important.

Almost 60% of parents need schools to reopen safely so they can return to work

“However, it is disheartening to see that their proposal was nothing more than a copy of the DeVos-funded Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) one-pager,” Brown continued. 

GLEP, a Lansing-based organization focused on school-choice advocacy, released their own school reopening plan Monday that included many of the same policy recommendations as the plan rolled out by the GOP.

Whitmer said she will “continue to work with everyone who is serious about developing a clear plan for schools across the state that prioritizes safety and learning.”