GOP House panel rejects Snyder school initiatives

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A state House committee on Tuesday rejected funding for most of Gov. Rick Snyder’s major education initiatives, setting the stage for negotiations on school funding between Republican legislative leaders and the GOP executive.

The House panel gutted funding increases requested for at-risk schools, a third-grade reading program and special support for financially distressed districts, like Detroit Public Schools, that Snyder considers critical to his second-term agenda.

The leader of the committee prefers giving as much state aid to districts as feasible and letting them decide how to spend the money, instead of setting aside more money for special programs in addition to the base foundation grant.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid proposed a base funding increase for all schools of $137 to $274 per student, plus $25 per pupil for the state’s lowest-funded schools to help close the gap with wealthier districts.

Snyder proposed giving all schools a minimum $75 per pupil increase, plus divvying up $100 million to schools with high populations of at-risk children in poverty and low academic achievement.

“I’m trying to do what I can to kick out as much money as I can with as few strings as possible and saying ‘Go do your job,’ ” said state Rep. Tim Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican and chairman of the subcommittee.

Kelly said the at-risk funding is a “scattershot approach” that doesn’t always yield good results in test scores.

But the move drew critics.

“This is money that’s used in a targeted way for students who need it the most. By rolling it up into the foundation allowance, we’re just spreading it across every district,” said Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores. “I’m just very concerned that the students that need it most, that’s going to be diluted doing it this way.”

The Michigan League for Public Policy, which backs Snyder’s major initiatives, also was critical.

“Michigan is not reaching anywhere near enough of the working-age adults who lack basic skills to be part of the state’s workforce development push; and too many of Michigan’s children can’t read by the end of third grade,” said Gilda Z. Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.

“We need to boost these programs, not cut the little funding available now.”

Proposal cuts special grants

The House GOP budget plan eliminates special grants for technology infrastructure improvements and school districts that achieve management “best practices” — areas Snyder wanted to reduce next school year.

The committee also adopted Snyder’s proposal to eliminate other grants to schools with higher academic achievement.

Kelly said those grants were “rewarding the high fliers.”

Budget-writing subcommittees in the House and Senate are voting on 2016 fiscal year budgets this week, before they recess for a two-week spring break.

The Senate subcommittee charged with crafting the state’s K-12 education budget meets Wednesday morning. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

Sen. Goeff Hansen, chairman of that subcommittee, would not reveal specifics Tuesday about his K-12 budget plan, other than to say he intends to propose base funding that closes the gap between lower-funded and more affluent school districts.

“We need to make sure that all students are treated equally in the state, financially,” said Hansen, R-Hart.

The GOP-controlled House and Senate often pass conflicting budget measures that eventually get hashed out in a compromise with Snyder by early June.

Snyder proposed boosting the minimum state funding to $7,326 per student. The House Republican plan increases the minimum grant from $7,251 this year to $7,550 next school year.

Under the House committee’s plan, the maximum foundation grant would increase from $8,099 per student to $8,236.

Kelly also rejected $18.4 million Snyder wanted for a third-grade reading initiative and an extra $71 million the Republican governor wanted for assisting distressed school districts. The House bill keeps intact an existing $4 million fund for distressed schools.

The Detroit News first reported Feb. 19 that Snyder’s office asked for the extra $71 million for distressed schools as a fund that could be used to help reorganize DPS or relieve the district of $56 million in annual debt service burdens.

Kelly said the distressed schools funding could be restored, depending on action Snyder takes on the Detroit district.

“We’re kind of holding it off in the wings,” Kelly told reporters after the committee meeting.

$40 per pupil less for DPS

Overall, the House Republican budget plan provides an extra $151 per student for DPS. Snyder’s budget plan boosted funding for the district to $191 per student because of the $100 million pool of additional aid for at-risk schools and students.

Democrats criticized a $5 million line item Kelly included for reimbursing private schools for costs incurred satisfying state mandates, such as taking attendance and running fire drills.

Kelly noted some parochial school students already get some instruction from public school teachers for specialty areas, such as foreign language.

The GOP chairman also said the school funding plan could change significantly before lawmakers adjourn for their summer recess, depending on spring tax revenue receipts and the passage of Proposition 1 on the May 5 ballot.

“There’s an awful lot of balls in the air,” Kelly said.

Proposition 1, which would trigger laws raising $1.2 billion more annually for roads, also contains $300 million more for education funding. Snyder and lawmakers have not assumed those funds in their 2016 fiscal year budgets.

“It’s only going to be gravy if this thing passes,” Kelly told reporters.