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Opinion | Michigan must boost funding for students with special learning needs

Paula Herbart and Rob Fowler
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association. Rob Fowler is CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught our state many things. The biggest lesson is this: Michigan’s most vulnerable residents need stronger services and supports.

This past spring, many students who receive special education services were suddenly left behind when their classrooms transitioned to distance learning. Getting this important population back on track remains critical work for our state’s educators.

Unfortunately, federal leaders have chronically underfunded quality special education services. Here in Michigan, our state funding structure also fails to adequately fund the needs of these students, which are normally much more expensive than the general education population. Instead, costs have been pushed to the county and local levels, where tough choices must be made about how to provide necessary services without breaking the bank.

It’s true there will always be compelling demands on our public dollars, and a pandemic is only the beginning. From public safety, defense and infrastructure to Social Security, Medicare and other essential programs, government budgets always will be filled with important – and often competing – priorities.

But there is no priority as significant as meeting the educational needs of every student, regardless of disability, in order to ensure they have the tools and support required to become a contributing member of our society and economy in adulthood. This is powerful, tremendous work. And it deserves more than the monetary scraps left over after each budget cycle’s feeding frenzy.

As we emerge from the wreckage of 2020 and begin to look forward again, we have an opportunity to reimagine how we care for our most vulnerable state residents. It’s long past time we insisted on a new special education funding structure, with guaranteed amounts for each student receiving services. 

We have the data to tell us who these students are and where they attend school. If we collect better data about the specific services students with special needs receive, we can then identify the true costs of the services they receive and fund them appropriately – starting now.

In fact, special education is only the beginning. All our state’s children ultimately deserve a funding model that prioritizes their unique needs and abilities. Such a model would accommodate key factors such as grade level, disability, socioeconomic status and language through a weighted funding formula that puts student needs first. We must address our inequities in school funding by recognizing that not every student costs the same to educate.

By taking on the adequate funding of special education services in this year’s state budget, Michigan could take a major step in the right direction. The benefits return to our state long after the student is out of school and living his or her best life. Earning. Contributing. And, most of all, demonstrating to all of us what’s possible.

This funding change is one that’s long overdue. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s shown that it pays to be prepared. And, most of all, that it’s never too soon—or too late—to do the right thing.

So let’s get about the business of doing just that.


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