Michigan lawmakers send 'game-changing' school budget to Whitmer

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Legislature approved a $17.1 billion funding plan for K-12 schools Wednesday, hours before a self-imposed deadline for a new budget, with lawmakers calling the proposal the "largest investment in education" in state history.

The bill gained bipartisan support, passing the Senate in a 33-1 vote and the House in a 106-3 vote. Thursday marks the beginning of the new fiscal year for many school districts, and state lawmakers were hoping to approve a budget before that date to give districts some level of certainty about what's ahead.

The Michigan Capitol is pictured on Nov. 3, 2020.

The large funding plan for schools comes as the legislators contemplate how to allocate billions of dollars in surplus funds and COVID-19 relief money from the federal government. Overall, the plan for schools is about a 10% increase over the funding total in the current year and uses increases in revenue to close the funding gap between districts in their base foundation allowances — a key objective of both Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and majority Republican lawmakers.

"While we have provided record levels of state funding to our schools for several years, this game-changing K-12 budget includes a $683 million boost to bring every Michigan school’s foundation allowance up to at least $8,700 per student," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland.

In a Wednesday statement, Whitmer said she looks looks forward to signing the K-12 school legislation. But the governor said it was unfortunate that lawmakers didn't finalize other elements of the state budget.

"We need to appropriate the $10 million in disaster aid for areas impacted by last weekend’s historic flooding," Whitmer said. "I am hopeful that the Legislature will work quickly to approve a state budget that supports small businesses, fixes our crumbling roads and bridges, expands access to child care and grows our economy."

Last week, the House passed its own $16.7-billion plan for schools, which amounted to a 7.8% increase over last year. Stamas said House leadership had agreed to take up the Senate's revised version on Wednesday. The Senate plan included $155 million in reading scholarships to be administered by Grand Valley State University and $135 million to benefit districts using a balanced calendar, which spreads out learning days more evenly across the year.

The reading scholarship money would help students in kindergarten through fifth grade who are less than proficient in reading, according to assessment data. Each student can get up to $1,000, and the money could be spent on summer school, tutoring or other services.

Under the bill, the state's base foundation allowance would be $8,700 per student. In the current year, the minimum foundation allowance was set at $8,111, and the maximum guaranteed foundation allowance was $8,529. Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, called the proposal "the largest investment in education in Michigan’s history."

"Today was a good day," Hertel said, adding, "I think this was a good bipartisan win for the Senate, the House and for the governor. And I think it was good for Michigan's people."

For decades, there have been differences in funding levels among Michigan school districts. Lawmakers have been gradually working to close the divide between those that receive the most money per student and those that receive the least. The new budget is a "huge step forward in adequately funding schools based on student needs," said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. 

Ken Gutman, superintendent of Walled Lake Consolidated Schools in Oakland County and president of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, also touted the budget.

"Educators now have the funding and guidance they need to get to work on what truly matters: supporting the needs of each and every student as we work to remediate the challenges brought on by the pandemic and set our students up for success in the coming year and beyond," Gutman said.

The legislation includes $240 million for school nurses and counselors and $168 million for the state's prekindergarten Great Start Readiness Program, which would expand the program for 22,000 more children, Whitmer said.

The Legislature's self-imposed deadline to approve at least some elements of the state budget is Thursday. The state's next fiscal year doesn't begin until Oct. 1. The House approved the school-funding plan at about 6 p.m. Wednesday, sending it to Whitmer.

Last week, the House also approved a $48-billion funding plan for state departments and agencies. The Senate sent its revised school plan back to the House Wednesday but overhauled the proposal for state departments and agencies by funding only subjects that Stamas said were immediate priorities.

The Senate plans to consider the rest of the state budget at a later date. Wednesday is the chamber's last scheduled session day before its summer break. That means the House and Senate will continue to work on the state's next budget in the coming weeks and potentially months. Lawmakers still need to agree to plans for community colleges and universities and figure out how to distribute billions of dollars in federal stimulus money.

The Senate budget bill of immediate priorities, which the House did not approve before adjourning, included only $1.7 billion with $1.4 billion for revenue sharing for local governments next year, $2.7 million to increase funding for police road patrols, $160 million for hospitals to cover increased costs during the COVID-19 pandemic and $100 million for long-term care facilities. The money for long-term care facilities will go to a $23-per-day increase to nursing facilities that have seen a census decline since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis. 

That bill, which includes $10 million for the Michigan State Police to help with costs related to this month's severe weather, passed the Senate in a 34-0 vote.

The House and Senate both approved a $25 million appropriation to offer financial support to providers of services for individuals injured in car accidents after a fee cut that takes effect Thursday under the 2019 auto no-fault reform law. 

School leaders had been pressuring senators to act on the House school budget proposal as they face their own deadlines — schools' fiscal years begin Thursday — and work to combat problems spurred by a pandemic that gripped the state and altered learning for many students for longer than a year.

"We owe it to our students that recovery efforts not be delayed any further," said Jennifer Green, the superintendent of Southfield Public Schools.

House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, called Wednesday's votes an "historic accomplishment."

"And this is the perfect time to accomplish the mission," Albert said. "Our kids need help like never before after the past year and a half of the COVID pandemic. We are delivering resources that will help students return to normalcy and get caught back up."

House Speaker Jason Wentworth's office had described the House legislation as "record funding for local schools" last week.