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Opinion: It’s time to stop balancing budgets on the backs of Michigan kids

Twelve years ago, in the midst of an economic crisis, lawmakers in Lansing agreed to a controversial plan to bail them out of a budgetary mess by using Michigan’s School Aid Fund – money intended solely for K-12 classrooms across the state – to balance the remainder of the state’s budget.

Pitched at the time as a one-time “borrowing” of $208 million from the School Aid Fund, lawmakers pointed to language requiring future legislatures to repay that money over the next four years as proof that this diversion of money outside of our classrooms was merely a loan rather than a permanent divestment in Michigan’s education funding.

Dennis McDavid
Dennis McDavid is Superintendent of Berkley School District in Oakland County. (Courtesy photo)

Except, of course, it was.

Not only was that money never repaid, but lawmakers diverted hundreds of millions of additional dollars out of the School Aid Fund in 2011, even more the year after that and more every year since. In total, since that first “loan” of $208 million back in 2009, nearly $6 billion has been stolen from our state’s classrooms, depriving our students of untold resources and opportunities along the way and sending a message that funding their education was no longer a priority for the state of Michigan.

In 2013, while serving as the minority leader of the Michigan Senate, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rightly attacked the continued diversion of these classroom funds, calling the latest budget to continue that tradition “theft of money from our school aid fund” that represented “apathy regarding inadequately funding our school kids.”

Educators applauded Whitmer’s commitment to fighting these raids on the school aid fund under previous administrations. Unfortunately, the practice has not only continued under her own, but has been allowed to grow further. What was a $400 million diversion of funds from our classrooms in 2013 when she delivered that speech grew to nearly $800 million in the same diversions in the budget she signed into law last year and, while economic uncertainties may have previously made correcting this budgetary mistake a challenge, it’s clearly time to fix it once and for all.

Economists have made it clear in recent weeks that Michigan’s budget outlook is historically strong. Billions of dollars in federal stimulus relief and additional state budget dollars are available for the first time in a generation to fix the significant gaps in Michigan’s K-12 funding models, and the first step in that process is ending this decade-long mistake of balancing our state’s budget on the backs of our kids.

While school administrators, teachers, parents and students have been told year after year to be patient, the time for patience is over.

Gov. Whitmer must now fulfill her campaign promise – a pledge that goes back more than a decade – to end this raid on Michigan’s school funding. By committing to only signing a budget that stops this practice once and for all, she can send a message that public education is a priority once again in Michigan, not an afterthought. Doing so, and in turn ensuring every dollar meant for our K-12 classrooms winds up there, we can ensure schools have the resources they need to hire more teachers, reading coaches, tutors, counselors and support staff on an ongoing, permanent basis to give our students the help they need to recover from this pandemic and throughout the remainder of their academic careers.

As we’ve seen throughout the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, what happens in the classroom affects us all. Schools are the center of our communities and our state’s economy. Over the course of the next year, educators will do what they do best: identify the needs of our students and use every available resource to address them. All we are asking for is the funding commitments needed to make those plans a success.

Educators stand ready to get to work on behalf of our students. We need Lansing to do the same.

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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