Column: Michigan legislators should heed the Constitution on school funding, in good times and bad

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The Michigan Constitution, like its federal counterpart, was written to stand the test of time. It outlines, in largely broad form, the rights of the people, establishes the powers of our government and creates the foundation of our system of taxation and spending.

While Michigan’s Legislature passes a budget each year that fits within the framework that document, few things in those budgets have as clear a mandate to get right as K-12 schools funding. The Constitution requires that “the Legislature maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law.” 

In fact, school funding is one of the only things our Constitution requires the Michigan Legislature to fund and fund properly. Yet, in recent years, support for our public schools has almost become an afterthought during budget discussions, with billions of dollars being “borrowed” from the state’s School Aid Fund to pay for other budget priorities. Meanwhile, schools are told to do more while accepting budgets that don’t even provide an inflationary increase in spending.

In the best of times, these priorities have failed in achieving our duty to provide our kids with the best education possible. During a crisis like the one we are currently living through with the COVID-19 pandemic, those same priorities jeopardize our ability to meet that constitutional provision entirely.

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Make no mistake, budget discussions in Lansing will require a litany of difficult decisions. However, we cannot continue to choose to balance budgets on the backs of our schools, our students and the future of our state. 

As it is, the budgets of every school across our state have already been stretched thin. The well-documented systematic disinvestment in school funding has long challenged our ability to fund needed programs in recent years. 

In order for schools to be able to reopen safely in the fall, extensive new health and safety guidelines will be required. Parents will expect the assurance that adequate measures are in place to keep students safe upon a return to school — as they should — and every one of those new guidelines will have a price tag attached.

In fact, according to a new analysis from the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, these expected health and safety requirements will add more than $1 billion in new costs for school districts statewide for the upcoming school year. Without additional support, this equates to $665 per pupil that would be diverted from students’ education.

Recent action in Lansing demonstrates a willingness to work toward a solution, but schools have billions of dollars in unfunded costs next year due to budget deficits and COVID-19 related expenses. Without significant funding, the types of cuts to a school district’s budget that would be required are not something schools can simply absorb. 

It would be devastating. Cuts of any kind would have the potential to require districts to lay off a significant portion of their teaching staff, eliminate key educational programs for students, or even prevent them from reopening their doors at all.

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The Michigan Legislature has available resources in the state’s rainy day fund that can, and should, be directed toward alleviating the current budget shortfall before any cuts to K-12 education are considered. This kind of large-scale crisis is precisely what the fund was created to cover. 

We know that the most immediate answer to avoid these cuts is to have additional stimulus dollars come from Washington. The federal HEROES Act stimulus package, passed by the U.S. House, included nearly $60 billion in funding for K-12 school districts across the country as part of a broader effort to stabilize state budgets. 

The legislation was a significant step in the right direction to cover the budget shortfalls schools will face for years to come as a result of COVID-19, but it didn’t pass the U.S. Senate. Unsurprisingly, politics are getting in the way.

And, frankly, schools don’t have time for that. 

When our lawmakers take their oath to uphold our state’s Constitution, they are making a promise to adhere to its directive to ensure our K-12 schools are funded appropriately. Upholding that oath will require Michigan legislators to allocate significant funding for schools, and to do so swiftly.

Kenneth Gutman
Kenneth Gutman has 28 years of collective educational experience serving in leadership roles in three Oakland County school districts. He joined Walled Lake Consolidated School District in November of 2010 as Superintendent of Schools after serving, in other districts, as superintendent; assistant superintendent of Human Resources, Curriculum and Instruction; assistant superintendent of Human Resources; principal; assistant principal; and, teacher. He earned both his Education Specialist Certificate and master’s degree from Wayne State University and bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University.