Column: School funding must be prioritized as we make up lost ground during the pandemic

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As members of the Return to Learn Advisory Committee appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office, we are pleased with the framework that was presented earlier this month. 

We can tell you as former public school educators, it was our goal from the beginning that the roadmap was based on what we know about best practices, but also what we know is realistic to achieve. To produce a document that was unattainable in scope would serve no one, and just add frustration to an already stressful time for schools, teachers, families, and students. 

We believe the most important attribute of this work is that the committee included public health experts, parents, students, educators, school board members and community leaders to develop a real plan for our schools in each phase of the MI Safe Start Plan

The governor’s comprehensive plan provides districts with guidance — not micromanagement — on the use of PPE, good hygiene, cleaning/disinfecting, transportation, athletics and more during the COVID-19 pandemic. In recognition that these protocols will cost money, the governor announced that she was allocating $256 million to support each district’s ability to implement their local plans. 

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The roadmap also recognizes the impact COVID-19 has had on students’ and educators’ mental health, and offers guidance on how schools can address this issue. In short, this is a guide for local school districts to make the safest decisions locally.

However, it can not be overlooked that the burden for public, private and charter schools has never been greater as a result of the learning time lost this past spring and potentially throughout this next year. This is occurring at a time when our state has never faced a greater challenge to collect revenue due to the pandemic. 

It is really very simple. When our school budget is based on the rise and fall of our economy, in a state as affected by volatile economic dips and recoveries as ours, we tie the futures of our children too closely to the success or failure of manufacturing, stock markets and property values.  

This budgetary reality has never been more stark than it is today. We know that pre-pandemic, Michigan underfunded the cost of student learning by more than $2,000 per pupil, and underfunded the cost of special education by $742 million. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, Michigan schools receive approximately 20% less revenue than two decades ago. If we consider the total revenue received by Michigan schools (i.e. not per-pupil funding) it is closer to 30% less revenue. 

It is not surprising that there is almost a direct correlation between the number of students in Michigan currently performing at or above grade level and the amount we, as citizens of our state, have invested in our children.

MSU study: Michigan school funding lower now than 25 years ago

Now we face a new challenge. We know through research that when students don’t have access to an effective teacher they lose ground. Students have not been in a classroom since March. And while distance learning kept them engaged, they have certainly faced a number of challenges. 

Just like COVID-19 health-related factors, we know that students in poverty and those in rural areas are more likely to have these challenges multiplied due to lack of connectivity and other issues related to economics. We know through research that for every year our students lag behind their peers, it takes two to three years to catch up.

As we face the future of education in Michigan, we need to prioritize funding of our schools. We need to call on our federal government to pay states the 40% of special education costs that were promised but never delivered when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in 1975. 

We need to call on the U.S. Senate to pass the HEROES Act — currently sitting on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — to fill the budget revenue gaps states are seeing as a result of COVID-19. We need to use a weighted model of school funding to make sure that the students who need it most, get the limited support we can offer. 

Then, when this virus is no longer a threat to us, we need to look seriously at how we fund our schools. We, as a state, have simply not done enough to prioritize our children, our future and our talent development. This must be our first priority as we recover from this challenging time.