Editorial: Deal cheats schools that take on new students

The Detroit News

The Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have agreed on a framework for how schools can approach the upcoming school year. That’s somewhat miraculous, given the tumultuous relationship between the governor and GOP lawmakers. But the pact could harm schools that have taken on new students during the pandemic.

On the positive side, schools now know they have flexibility to open schools how they see fit, whether online only, in person, or a mix of both. The deal leaves those decisions at the local level.

Schools also have additional certainty regarding testing expectations and how they will be allowed to count students for per-pupil funding purposes and meet seat-time requirements in a virtual world. It’s good that accountability won’t be tossed completely. 

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But there's still plenty of concern. Though lawmakers put together some logistical benchmarks, they have yet to address the 2021 fiscal year budget, which begins Oct. 1. School districts could face significant cuts in light of an estimated $3 billion shortfall due to COVID-19. A federal bailout can’t be counted on.

The biggest shortcoming in the legislation is the negative financial impact on schools that have taken on new students since the pandemic started. School choice proponents are extremely disappointed lawmakers agreed to a funding mechanism that allows districts to base their student counts largely on last year’s enrollment.

It is fundamentally unfair to schools, including cyber charter schools that have taken on new students. State funding is directly tied to a district’s student enrollment.

School choice is a lifetime for families trying to figure out how to deal with the pandemic.

The legislation allows districts to base 75% of this school year’s student count on last year’s numbers; 25% of funding will be tied to this year’s count, taken officially on days in October and February. 

Given the disparate ways districts responded to the pandemic and distance learning in the spring, charter schools — and cyber charters — are reporting considerable new interest as parents seek options that meet their needs. Other districts are likely seeing similar trends.

Schools that have taken on more students, however, could now be facing financial hardship.

That hold harmless clause is exactly what the teachers unions wanted. In a joint statement, MEA President Paula Herbart and AFT Michigan President David Hecker said, “this provision minimizes the impact of students moving between districts under schools of choice, as well as to for-profit cyber charters, which have advertised aggressively to siphon students from traditional schools amidst the pandemic.” 

We understand that districts are seeking as much certainty as possible, given potential funding cuts. But schools should not be punished for (or discouraged from) enrolling new students.

GOP lawmakers have said they’d try to fix this in the budget, but you can be sure any line item to aid schools — especially charter schools — would be nixed by Whitmer.

School choice is a lifetime for families trying to figure out how to deal with the pandemic. This legislation works against the flexibility parents need in finding the best option for their children.  

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