Opinion: Laud Whitmer for pushing K-12 in the right direction

Russel Pickell
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, seen presenting her budget proposal to lawmakers on March 5, has told residents she is willing to stake her political career on the road funding fight.

Educators have come to expect the worst from Lansing. After years of watching the Legislature redirect money intended for K-12 schools elsewhere and creating new hoops schools must jump through to get whatever funding is left, we tend to assume that any budget cycle is going to be a disaster, and anything better starts to feel like a moral victory.

Imagine the surprise educators felt, then, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled a budget proposal earlier this year that not only wasn’t bad, but was actually very good. For the first time in a generation, there was a proposal on the table that didn’t try to pretend that small tweaks to the status quo were somehow going to fix the problems we are facing in our classrooms.

Instead, the governor planned a bold, new vision of how to fund our schools, based on what research has told us will best meet the unique needs of every child in every classroom in Michigan.

I joined with my colleagues from across the state in support of Whitmer’s K-12 budget when it was unveiled, but recognized that while it was a significant step in the right direction, it was only the beginning of the exhausting, politicized process of creating the state budget.

While our conversations with our legislators were met with agreement than the K-12 budget needed this change, they described the process of implementing it as too big of a lift for this year and suggested that educators should be happy if the state just puts a few extra dollars into the existing funding formula we all agreed was outdated, broken and would fail to give our students the opportunities they deserve regardless.

It came as no surprise, then, when negotiations broke down and the Legislature passed budgets without the governor’s input, that the K-12 budget they passed didn’t just water down the governor’s proposal, it scrapped it entirely in favor of keeping the failed, status quo in place for yet another year. Not because they thought it was the right thing to do for our students, but because it became the easier thing to do politically.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the process. While much has been made in recent weeks over the actions Whitmer took to both veto and reallocate significant portions of those budgets sent to her by the Legislature, one thing is clear: The changes she made to their K-12 budget once again put a spotlight on the need for significant change to the K-12 budget in its entirety.

The governor’s vetoing of tens of millions of dollars in pork from the K-12 budget fulfills a commitment from her original budget proposal to ensure that every dollar that parents expect to go to their child’s classrooms actually ends up there instead of into these niche programs that private vendors profit off of and few kids benefit from.

These items that diverted money out of classrooms to companies with the best lobbyists to fund things such as a $3 million “panic button” phone app, $1 million to the Algebra Nation company that has been rightly called out for flying lawmakers to lush parties in Florida, or any number of other programs that may have benefited a small number of students at the expense of the rest, remained in the budget for years because Lansing lacked the political will to do the right thing and remove them.

Whitmer’s moves make it clear that she isn’t going to accept the same, failed funding policies for our schools and, while the Legislature may have thought that fixing that was too big of an undertaking, she is going to insist that they get back to work and make this change for the better happen, whether in the current supplemental budget discussion or next year’s process.

Whitmer is making it clear that our students deserve far better than the status quo, and that budgets are no longer going to prioritize profits over their success. Taking on this challenge was never going to be an easy one and the governor deserves credit, and the thanks from educators across Michigan, for not backing down from it.

Russell Pickell is the superintendent of Riverview Community School District.