Michael F. Rice, Ph.D., is superintendent for the state of Michigan.
In a pandemic, some lines blur. Others become clearer.
We now “do school” at home, at least for the moment. The distinction between home and school is less sharp than pre-pandemic.
Even with the extraordinary efforts of our teachers, support staff, and administrators, our students are getting less out of the spring than normal. The sharp line between spring and summer is less apparent. Kids will need to get more out of the summer than they typically do given that they will have gotten less out of the spring than usual.
So, while lines of space and time have blurred, here’s what’s clear: Our kids need us—their parents, educators and supporters. Right now. Big time. They need us to drumbeat for them in two ways.
First, they need us to fight to preserve education funding for next school year. The May revenue-estimating conference showed that the state’s revenue has declined $6.29 billion in total this year and next, with an estimated $2.39 billion of the drop in the School Aid Fund alone. A $1 billion decline in revenue for schools is a cut of $685 per student. The minimum foundation allowance, which many of our districts receive, is only $8,111 per student. All else being equal, profound cuts will rain down on our children and our schools.
But all else doesn’t have to be equal. We need to lobby our state Legislature to:
- prioritize public education in the budget process, as the governor has advocated;
- to provide flexibility in rigid state laws during a pandemic; and
- to help us lobby Congress for more federal funding.
We also need to lobby Congress directly for funding that preserves educational services for our children. No child asked to grow up in part during a pandemic, and no child should have his or her education harmed because he or she did. Additional funding from Congress will save our kids from this fate. Composed of every major education association in the state, the Our Children, Our Future coalition has begun to make this case, with a virtual rally last week.
Six studies in the state in six years—from the 2015 Upjohn Institute study to the 2020 Education Trust-Midwest study—have said the same thing: We underfund public education in Michigan.
Different children have different needs; different needs have different costs. We must fund the needs of students with disabilities, poor children, English language learners, and children in remote areas, not simply an undifferentiated student count. According to a 2017 special education study co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Calley, Michigan is underfunding these services by $742 million. The 2018 School Finance Research Collaborative study, the most comprehensive of the studies, substantiated the needs and costs of all Michigan students. The 2019 Michigan State University study noted that, between 1995 and 2015, Michigan’s growth in total education revenue after inflation was 50th of 50 states.
Governor Whitmer’s budget this February was the best pre-K-12 state budget introduced in at least two decades. Now, unfortunately, three months after the advent of COVID-19 in Michigan, we are in a fight to avoid debilitating cuts and to preserve educational services, as opposed to an effort to expand services for children.
We fight to preserve services for children, while we have greater financial and logistical challenges in our 893 Michigan school districts as educators prepare for in-person education, education at a distance, and the possible combination of the two, with additional costs for cleaning and personal protective equipment.
Second, our children need us to fight for universal access to home technology. The digital divide between those who have and those who don’t have home technology—minimally a device with preloaded educational software and preferably an Internet connection as well—has become more apparent and more fundamental during the pandemic.
Because home is now a more obvious extension of school, we need to narrow and ultimately eliminate the digital divide in the country. While many school districts have provided devices or internet hotspots to help narrow the digital divide, many more need help, especially with connectivity, which is very expensive or inaccessible in more remote areas.
Some work has been done at the federal level on this issue, but Congress needs to do more. Most recently, U.S. Sen. Stabenow and USDA Secretary Perdue announced an encouraging $22.5 million project to expand high-speed internet to rural Van Buren, Allegan, and Barry counties in Southwest Michigan. Michigan Attorney General Nessel and 38 of her attorney general colleagues across the country have urged Congress to provide funding for universal access to broadband.
As supporters of children, we need to make this resounding case to Congress. Moreover, once we are post-pandemic, with the elimination of the digital divide, we can reduce the exposure gap, reduce summer slide, and begin to more substantially reduce the gap between working class and poor children on the one hand and middle class children on the other.
As districts struggle to budget for a new school year, tell members of Congress you expect them to hold children and their education harmless in a pandemic.