Michigan GOP lawmakers want in-person learning for young students this fall

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican lawmakers in Michigan are proposing a reopening plan for schools that would require in-person learning for younger students to begin this fall and would spend $1.3 billion supporting education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The GOP legislators unveiled the plan Tuesday morning outside the Michigan Capitol. It comes a week before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, will release her own proposal.

"The state has been derelict in giving guidance to schools and parents as to what they're facing for this fall," Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Tuesday. "It's time to change that narrative."

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, speaks at a press conference in Lansing about reopening schools on Monday, June 23, 2020.

Whitmer has said she's optimistic in-person instruction can return in the fall. On March 12, the governor announced that schools would close to in-person learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Under the Republican lawmakers' "Return to Learn" plan, schools would be able to develop "flexible learning plans" for the upcoming school year, according to a one-page description of the proposal. But schools would have to "at a minimum" require in-person instruction for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade, according to the document.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said the idea behind the requirement is to provide stability for elementary school-age children.

"We would like to see K-5 in school every day because we think it's important for growth and stability and mental health," Hornberger said.

Michigan State Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township

The GOP plan would also spend $1.3 billion in COVID-19 relief funding previously allocated to the state by the federal government. 

The plan would provide $800 in per-pupil funding for schools to implement "robust distance learning plans and health and safety measures to return students safely to the classroom."

The money would aim to boost schools that are facing cuts because of lost revenue and added costs necessary to combat the coronavirus.

The state is estimating a $1.2 billion cut to the existing year’s School Aid Fund, money that’s largely already been spent as the end of the academic year nears, and $1.1 billion in next year’s budget.

Republican lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature unveiled this "Return to Learn" plan on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

How the $1.3 billion in proposed added funding fits with the anticipated cuts is yet to be determined as negotiations continue in Lansing. Whitmer is hoping the federal government allows further flexibility with COVID-19 relief dollars designated to the state to help fill the holes.

Also, under the new Republican plan, Michigan teachers would receive $500 each in one-time payments. Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, described the payments as a blend of hazard pay, overtime pay and cost reimbursement for the transition to distance-learning.

In addition, the Republicans would provide $80 million to intermediate school districts to help schools in coordinating and implementing distance learning plans and safe learning measures.

When it comes to school operations, the GOP plan would allow school districts to start their years whenever they want and would require schools to administer a benchmark assessment to help evaluate students when instruction resumes.

According to the plan, school districts would partner with local health departments to develop health and safety standards that make sense for their communities.

"We are committed to getting our kids back in the fall," Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said. "We do know, however, that that's going to look different from district to district."

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, serves Michigan's 22nd State Senate District.

Some families want their children to go back to the normal school environment, Theis said. Some families are focused primarily on safety, she added.

The Legislature can't do a "one-size-fits-all program," Theis said.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said it was encouraging "to see Republicans in the Legislature acknowledge that education funding and the flexibility to prioritize learning in a safe environment is critically important."

But Brown criticized the new proposal for sharing similarities with plans from the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter school advocacy group that has received funding from west Michigan's conservative DeVos family.

Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations for the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said the GOP proposal recognizes there are going to be barriers to starting schools in the fall that come with added costs.

Schools will need personal protective equipment and deep cleanings on top of the $1-billion holes projected for the School Aid Fund, he said.

"A lot of questions still remain," Spadafore said.

The Lansing-based Tri-County Alliance for Public Education estimated last week that reopening Michigan's K-12 schools safely this fall will cost districts more than $1 billion.