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Opinion | To get our kids back in classrooms, here's the budget Michigan needs

Mark Greathead

In recent weeks, we have seen a significant number of elected officials in both Lansing and Washington speaking out about the importance of getting students back into classrooms this fall. As a school superintendent, I agree. There is no substitute for the education and support students receive in an in-class learning environment, particularly for our students who are at-risk or rely on special education services.

Unfortunately, what I have not heard from those same elected officials is a plan to ensure our schools can provide the services our students need this year, either in-person or remotely, because they have yet to allocate a single dollar to Michigan’s K-12 schools to pay for the school year that is already underway.

That inaction from lawmakers throughout the summer left Michigan’s school officials with an impossible task: plan for a successful school year during a health pandemic with no answers on how much money will be budgeted to our districts and little guidance on how schools can keep students and staff safe. It felt, if anything, like I was being asked to build a house in the middle of an earthquake without any blueprints or idea of how much wood there was to do the job. 

As a result, students across Michigan are left with a mixed bag in terms of how, or when, school districts will be reopening this fall. Understandably, superintendents are hearing the frustration over that from parents and students loudly and clearly, however, I can promise you that we are as frustrated as anyone. My colleagues and I have spent our careers working to give our students the best education we can possibly deliver and every one of us spent the summer with the same goal in mind of getting students back into classrooms as quickly and safely as possible. 

Unfortunately, without that critically needed budget certainty from Lansing, starting the year off with in-person learning slowly went from a difficult goal to an impossible one for many districts, and educators were forced to pick the least-bad option we had in front of us.

And while that’s left us starting off the school year on a less than ideal note, thankfully, it’s not too late for our state to fix this and give our students the best possible outcome during a school year otherwise full of uncertainties, but only if Lansing acts, and acts quickly.

In February, Gov. Whitmer released her Executive Budget recommendations for the upcoming school year. Looking at it today, it still serves as a solid foundation on which to build a budget that will provide schools the resources and certainty they need. We must, however, recognize the unusual ways the pandemic will impact this school year.

The Tri-County Alliance for Public Education—a group of superintendents from throughout metro Detroit, myself included—has identified $125 million of "business as usual" funding in the governor’s February budget that we now know won't apply this year and should instead be redirected to classrooms. When combined with the $372 million that economists have identified as available to schools, legislators can and should invest nearly half billion in new funding into our schools where it’s needed most. That means better allowing schools to fully implement their learning plans, providing the best chance possible to get kids back into classrooms and keep them there safely, and giving students the opportunity to succeed this year.

Unfortunately, rather than investing in our schools, it’s become a tradition in Lansing to watch hundreds of millions of dollars be diverted out of our classrooms every single year to plug holes in the budget elsewhere. That simply cannot happen this year if we want our schools to succeed and our students to be supported.

With the return to school now upon us, educators stand ready to serve our students and do everything we can to return students to in-class learning as quickly and safely as possible. As we do, we know that it will take every penny available for our efforts to succeed. I urge state legislators to do their part to protect school funding, securing the critical dollars that will be needed for a school year that we know will be unlike any other.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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