Column: Michigan’s future will be shaped in classrooms. Our budget should reflect that reality.

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COVID-19 has devastated far too many families in Michigan and across America, from illness to layoffs. And now budget discussions may leave many of our essential services underfunded and unable to meet the demands of this moment. 

Recent estimates show a total of $2.4 billion in cuts to Michigan’s School Aid Fund, which primarily funds K-12 education — are possible on top of schools already underfunded to the tune of $3.7 billion. These cuts, on top of decades of underfunding, would do a massive disservice to our children. The fact of the matter is schools are going to be asked to do so much more over the next few years for safety, social distancing and helping students catch up after nearly a half year of missed in-person instruction.

Michigan elected officials can and should do all they can to ensure our schools do not face cuts. First, our members of the state Legislature should work with the members of the congressional delegation to call for a federal response to budget shortfalls caused by the virus. Our country cannot afford years of coronavirus-related budget cuts on top of our already underfunded schools.

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Our Legislature also should prioritize essential services such as education, environmental quality and health and human services over other budget items. For decades, Michigan has spent lavishly on tax credits for corporations that have a dubious record on job creation and tax dollars raised from those projects.

Finally, budget language should instruct local school districts to spend as much of their dollars in classroom instruction as possible. For example, Detroit Public Schools spends millions of dollars each year on police officers, while studies suggest this spending does little to keep children safe. And in many instances, makes them less safe, due to children being criminalized for behavior that would have, at worst, warranted a suspension in the past. Moreover, this spending takes away from other vital areas such as school nurses, vital equipment and classroom instruction.

This fall, we will have the most consequential first day of school in generations. Children, teachers and staff will return to a new world with classrooms that look different. Instruction will be done in different venues and there will be new safety procedures, which will be a lesson in and of themselves. 

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Michigan’s elected officials can either meet this moment and ensure that schools have the resources to meet the new challenges or they can shirk their responsibility to our kids and leave schools without the money needed to provide a quality education.

This pandemic will teach our children a lot about the world around them: that the world doesn’t revolve around our wants nor our needs, that large problems deserve strong responses and being a responsible member of a community means caring for each other. 

Let’s also hope that they learn one more lesson – that when our state sees a challenge, we meet it with new ideas and don’t force those without agency – our children to bear the burden of a failure of leadership.

Peri Stone-Palmquist
Peri Stone-Palmquist has been Executive Director of the Student Advocacy Center since 2012 and been an advocate for children and youth since 2005. Peri has a master’s in social work and public policy, and received certification as a trauma specialist. Peri is an expert in school discipline and the educational rights of homeless children and youth. Previously, she led Washtenaw County’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Education project, served as the Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Michigan Association for Children with Emotional Disorders and was a newspaper reporter at several papers.