University of Michigan graduate students go on illegal strike with rally

Jacques: All students deserve additional virus support

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

I do not envy the position school administrators are in right now. Or teachers. 

Parents and students also face myriad questions and concerns as the start of school quickly approaches — the scheduled start of school anyway. 

COVID-19 has thrown all normal expectations about what school should be like out the window, and every district is responding differently. Several have already said they plan to go online only; others are striving for in-person classes or some kind of mix. 

I’m also hearing increasing anecdotal reports about parents who are planning to give homeschooling a try. 

With all this flux, and the additional attention to safety measures, schools are seeking as much financial assistance as possible from the state and federal government. For good reason. 

Thanks largely to funding from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion aid package Congress passed in March, the state was able to shield schools from cuts in the 2020 fiscal year budget. But the 2021 budget — the next fiscal year starts Oct. 1 — is far from settled, so Michigan school districts are in great need of certainty there. 

Congress is considering a next round of virus aid, and schools appear to be front and center on the agenda, although Republicans and Democrats differ on amounts and how the funding should be distributed. 

In the interim, some school district leaders are frustrated with how the Michigan Department of Education is choosing to use some of its allotted federal relief dollars.

The CARES Act set aside about $13 billion for K-12 schools, and Michigan got $390 million. Congress chose to send money to states using the federal Title 1 funding formula, which is intended to help districts with students from low-income families. States then allotted the funds to local districts based on the same formula. 

That means districts like Detroit Public Schools Community District received much more in funds than many others did. DPSCD alone got 25% of the total, given the high number of children in poverty.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits a third grade class at Detroit Edison Public School Academy (DEPSA) on Friday.

Congress allowed the state Education Department to reserve 10% of the funds for its discretion, and some of the leaders from the state’s intermediate districts are asking the MDE to reconsider how it’s using that funding.

And they make a good case. In a June 24 letter, these districts asked state Superintendent Michael Rice and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to release the funds on a per-pupil basis, given the pressing needs facing all schools. 

“We are asking for MDE to immediately release the remaining $39 million to all districts on a per-pupil basis to help them prepare for a return to in-person learning this fall,” wrote the seven intermediate school district superintendents, including those from Wayne, Macomb and Oakland. 

But the MDE has another plan. According to spokesman Martin Ackley, the department plans to use the funding, which it pinpoints at slightly more than $37 million, to provide “targeted funding to reduce the digital divide and support students’ mental health in Michigan’s highest-need school communities.” The MDE says the grant application will be sent to school districts soon.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

Given the hullabaloo Rice, Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel made earlier in the month about a rule change from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her department that would direct about $16 million in additional CARES Act funding to private schools (for a total of $21.6 million, or 5% of the state's funds), it seems the “shortfall” could be addressed with the unused pot of money. Michigan is one of the states suing to stop private schools from seeing any of the relief aid. 

Congress could help ease the turf wars with a next round of funding by simply granting aid on a per-pupil basis, regardless of the school. After all, all children are being impacted by the pandemic. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques