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Michigan House OKs $16.1B education budget

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A $16.1 billion omnibus education funding budget won bipartisan approval in the Michigan House of Representatives on Tuesday, though lawmakers sparred over a $1 million line item for private schools.

Before the 72-36 vote, Democrats roundly criticized the Republican majority for including the $1 million to reimburse private and parochial schools for costs incurred from state regulations and mandates.

“You have blatantly broken the constitution by putting money in this to fund private schools,” said state Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, defended the funding, noting there was no opposition from Democrats when the state funded lead testing of drinking water in private schools.

“There’s a bit of hypocrisy going on here,” Kelly said. “We seem to pick and choose when it’s appropriate to use public dollars and when it’s not.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, said the money for private schools would help pay for fire drills and amounts to a “whopping” 60 cents per student.

The House’s budget plan adopts Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed increases in per-pupil funding for K-12 public schools, ranging from $60 to $120 for every child, with the lowest-funded districts getting the higher amount.

Under the plan, Michigan’s minimum foundation grant would increase from $7,391 to $7,511 per student and the maximum grant would rise from $8,169 to $8,229.

The School Aid plan redirects $72 million from the state’s tobacco lawsuit settlement fund to trust fund to pay for a financial rescue of Detroit Public Schools. The money is designed to relieve the debt-ridden school system of $515 million in long-term debts, unpaid pensions and past due vendor bills.

House approval of setting aside the money for DPS represents the first step toward fixing the district’s broken finances, said Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

“My hope is that we can solve this issue one way or the other before the end of June, but it’s going to be a challenge,” Cotter said. “We don’t know what that solution looks like yet.”

Lawmakers are at odds over future governance of Detroit’s educational landscape and whether to rein in the growth of charter schools.

Before the vote late Tuesday afternoon, more than 200 people gathered at the state Capitol to rally for more money for Detroit schools. The DPS employees and supporters also voiced their opposition to continued state control of the district, which has been operated continuously by emergency managers since 2009.

“We need answers about what’s going on with the money,” said James Ray, a 15-year veteran elementary teacher in DPS. “Teachers are unsure what’s going on” with the district’s future.

“I need some stability,” he added.

Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, urged lawmakers to approve long-term funding to keep the city’s public schools open. In March, the Legislature and Snyder approved $48.7 million in emergency funding to keep the 45,786-student school district operating through the end of the school year.

Some DPS eductors remain skeptical of the Republican-led effort to rescue the state’s largest school district from financial collapse.

“I’m just not certain we’re going to come out — students and staff — on the best end,” said Linda Thomas, a social worker at the Drew Transition Center in Detroit.

Under the House-approved education budget, four-year public universities and community colleges would see funding increases ranging from 2.7 percent to 5.9 percent under the 2017 fiscal year spending plan.

Four-year public universities and community colleges would see funding increases ranging from 2.7 percent to 5.9 percent under the 2017 fiscal year spending plan.

Democrats have remained critical of Snyder and legislative Republicans’ use of School Aid funding for higher education, as the state constitution allows. Universities and community colleges have traditionally received state aid from the General Fund and School Aid has been dedicated to K-12 schools.

The House’s budget plan directs $260.4 million from the School Aid Fund to community colleges and $237.2 million in School Aid dollars to help subsidize university operations.

“That’s a lot of money coming out of the School Aid Fund to pay for something that used to have a General Fund commitment,” said Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores. “Imagine what we could be doing with our traditional public schools with this kind of money. We could have a literacy coach in every school.”

Ten Democrats voted for the education funding bill with the GOP majority. Rep. Tom Barrett of Grand Ledge was the lone Republican to vote against the package with 35 Democrats.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

Associated Press contributed.