Editorial: Lawmakers, governor step up for Michigan schools

The Detroit News

It's campaign season in Michigan, in case you haven't noticed. And candidates for governor and the Legislature — especially Democrats — are blaming their Republican colleagues for many of the woes in education. But as this latest budget shows, GOP lawmakers just approved the largest single-year budget increase for schools in 15 years, after previous years of boosting funding for public schools.

Ferndale Upper Elementary School students   complete their classroom assignments at the Oak Park campus on Wednesday September 14, 2017. 
Max Ortiz/The Detroit News 2017

Lawmakers are proving they value Michigan’s education system by directing a record amount of money to our K-12 schools, approving last week a $56.8 billion budget for the next fiscal year — and directing $14.8 billion of that to schools. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign off on the budget, since much of it was his proposal.

Behind only the Department of Health and Human Services, the state's public schools consistently receive the biggest chunk of the Michigan budget. 

School funding has been steadily increasing since 1995, even with occasional drops in funding through the years as the state dealt with budget shortfalls.

Tim Kelly

In this latest budget lawmakers include a $312 million increase for foundation allowances for students. Schools will be receiving $120 to $240 more per student, depending on a district's need, and each district will see a 3.1 percent raise in the minimum allowance per student to $7,871 from $7,631.

The budget also sets aside about $100 million for Snyder’s Marshall Plan for Talent to prepare students for the workforce and jobs in the skilled trades. An additional $58 million will go toward school safety measures, including $25 million for upgraded door locks and $30 million for mental health services. Special education, at-risk students and early literacy will also see a boost.

And $1.2 billion will be directed to the Michigan school employees' retirement system, which has suffered in recent years from billions in unfunded liabilities and placed strains on local school budgets. 

To top it off, lawmakers are only using dedicated School Aid funds this year, which will save the state’s general fund $155 million, according to Rep. Tim Kelly, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid. The Saginaw Township Republican also chairs the House Education Reform Committee. 

Some lawmakers say more funding is required for schools to run properly and efficiently, but Kelly disagrees, saying strategic funding is vital.

“More money’s not necessarily the issue,” Kelly says. “The issue is how it’s spent. We need to get more money into the classroom.”

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, believes the state government should give less money to categorical grants (which go to specific programs that are more restrictive in terms of how funds are spent) and put more into foundation allowances.

That’s worth considering, as numerous groups are pushing the state to re-think how it funds schools. 

In the meantime, the numbers speak for themselves: State and federal money for public schools has been increasing for decades, and Republican lawmakers are continuing this trend.