Opinion: Federal relief is critical to lessen school budget blow

Paula Herbart

The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on state budgets, and Michigan is no exception; we face an estimated $6.2 billion shortfall through next year. To avoid catastrophic cuts, educators across the country are asking for help from Congress, like what has already been provided to such large corporations as airlines, cruise companies and banks.

Specifically, educators are urging Congress to pass the new HEROES Act, which includes billions to help states maintain a quality public education for students. 

More:Democrats push new $3T coronavirus relief bill through House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Washington.

Like most states, Michigan’s constitution requires a balanced budget. This means that absent federal relief, policymakers will have to consider significant school funding cuts. Last week, state economists agreed that the shortfall for K-12 schools alone was $1.2 billion this year and $1.1 next. Cuts to that level would balloon class sizes and eliminate services for students when they can least afford it — especially in some of our hardest-hit communities. 

More:Michigan predicts $3.2 billion budget shortfall, looks to feds for more aid

Speaking to the need for this federal relief, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer explained why it is so important: “We know it is going to be a while before we get back to the economic strength that we had prior to this crisis, but we can’t sacrifice the education of our kids while we wait for the economy to recover.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks Thursday, May 7.

The HEROES Act, passed Friday by the U.S. House, would provide states with more than $915 billion to offset COVID-19 budget losses, including those that would devastate public education. 

In all, America’s educators are advocating for at least $175 billion of that additional federal funding go to education. In addition, we need funding to reduce the digital divide — or “homework gap” — and to provide personal protective equipment for education employees who still must show up at worksites to supply meals and schoolwork for students. 

Lack of technology access has been a reality for many students and families for decades. The digital divide has become more apparent during the pandemic-driven move to distance learning. Students of color, especially those living in urban areas, and those living in remote areas are far less likely to have high-speed internet and connected devices to access new forms of teaching and learning. This inequity is one of the civil rights issues of our time, and it’s time for Congress to step up and alleviate this injustice.

Looking ahead to when students return to school in person, there will also be a need for more professionals to support students’ physical and mental health. Positions like school nurses, counselors and social workers have been eliminated in many districts over the past 20 years. With the rise in disruptive behavior and school violence the need to reinstate these positions to help students cope with a variety of mental health issues was already acute. Now, it’s even more important to have trained professionals help students deal with trauma from family illness, loss of loved ones and economic distress, as well as to monitor student health to prevent further outbreaks. 

While the current educational landscape is challenging to say the least, I am very proud of the way our school employees have stepped up to provide meaningful educational opportunities and support for Michigan students. I am also deeply gratified to see the outpouring of support from parents for educators during this crisis. There is a renewed sense of appreciation for the job teachers and school support staff do every day, and a renewed understanding of how difficult the work of public education really is.

I ask those parents to join educators from across the nation to lobby Congress and urge them to pass this relief package for our schools and our students.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.