Educators urge 'fund our schools': GOP says aid at record levels

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Paula Herbart, President of the Michigan Education Association, cheers on the steps of the Capitol during the 'Red For Ed,' rally in Lansing Tuesday.

Lansing — Thousands of Michigan educators rallied Tuesday outside the state Capitol, wearing “red for ed” as they called on the Republican-led Legislature to “fund our schools” and adopt Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget plan.

After eight years of full Republican control in state government, the annual rally doubled as a celebration of Whitmer, who took office in January. She was hailed by union leaders as a key ally in the battle against charter schools and privatization pushed by national GOP leaders like Betsy DeVos.

“It’s a new day in Lansing, and we have a fighter on our side who understands that we have to stop short-changing students and we have to invest in our future,” said David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Whitmer spoke to loud applause as she touted her 2020 budget proposal and blamed the state’s anemic standardized testing scores on “failure in this building behind me, not because of our children.”

But inside the Michigan Capitol, Republican lawmakers batted back the attacks. While GOP budgets do not go as far as Whitmer’s because they do not include revenue from her proposed 45-cent fuel tax hike, the Senate budget would still provide a significant funding boost for K-12 schools, said Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City.

“We’re putting in record levels of funding,” said Schmidt, who chairs the Senate K-12 budget subcommittee. “Hopefully we’ll see declining enrollment going back up as we bring families back into Michigan, as people feel comfortable that they have good jobs and are able to raise a family.”

Total state spending on the K-12 system is up roughly 12 percent from the pre-recession peak in 2009, rising from $13.3 billion to $14.8 billion over that span, according to the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

But the totals do not account for inflation, which erodes purchasing power. Public education advocates note that a significant share of the new funding has been funneled into retirement costs rather than classrooms.

The School Finance Research Collaborative last year recommended a significant boost in per-pupil funding, suggesting the need for $9,590 per pupil, up 14% to 22% from the $7,871 to $8,409 districts received this year.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer hugs a rally goer Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

Whitmer’s budget proposed $507 million in new spending for K-12 classrooms, which she has said would be the largest increase of its kind in a generation. It would move the state toward a weighted funding formula recognizing costs associated with the unique needs of some students.

The governor’s plan recommended a $235 million bump in base per-pupil funding along with additional money for economically disadvantaged, special education and career technical education students.

Budgets adopted by the Republican-led House and Senate propose similar foundation allowance increases but do not include the additional funding for at-risk, special or tech ed students.

Whitmer’s budget proposal relies, in part, on a fuel tax increase that would generate $2.5 billion a year in new revenue by 2021. Her long-term plan would increase road repair funding $1.9 billion annually and free up an additional $600 million for K-12 schools and other priorities.

GOP leaders have balked at the gas tax plan, which would give Michigan the highest rate in the nation. They are expected to negotiate a final deal with Whitmer in coming months but will not wrap up this month, which means local school districts will have to start crafting their own spending plan without knowing how the debate will play out.

The gas tax increase would be “tough” for some educators who don’t make much money, said Donna Jackson, a para-professional and union leader in Detroit.

Whitmer’s budget could allow for teacher pay increases and help slow a “revolving door” that is plaguing the district, said Diana Moses, an art teacher in Eastpointe Community Schools.

As an art teacher, Moses said she’s had to purchase her own supplies for her classrooms, including one prolonged stretch where she was given “no money whatsoever” and had to think creatively.

Teachers and supporters fill the westbound lanes of Michigan Avenue as they march west from the Lansing Center to the Capitol building as part of "Red For Ed."

“I had to go to a printing company to get leftover papers so that I had some paper in my classroom,” she said. “We do fundraisers. We get the community to donate things. We do grant writing. Anything we can think of.”

Republican lawmakers noted that their proposed education budgets would take state K-12 spending over the $15 billion mark for the first time in Michigan history.

“I think we’re doing a good job funding the schools, but I also do believe that there are schools that need more money,” said Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township. “They have students that require more services.”

Whitmer’s budget proposes increasing systemwide K-12 spending by $526 million next year, compared with $203 million by the House and $361 million by the Senate.

“We’re still negotiating,” LaSata said.