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GOP: Use $1.3 billion in fed money to bail out Michigan schools amid COVID

Despite fears that thousands of third-graders would flunk because of Michigan’s Read By Grade Three law, only 229 did.

Michigan GOP leaders proposed Tuesday to use $1.3 billion in federal funding to help bail out schools facing increased costs from fighting the coronavirus and a potentially calamitous drop in state dollars.

The proposal includes a one-time $800 per-pupil payment to school districts to pay for improved remote learning and safety precautions. Teachers would get $500 in what amounts to battle pay for their work during the crisis.

The funding would be part of the current state budget year, which ends Sept. 30. If approved, the $1.3 billion to schools would represent the bulk of the approximately $1.9 billion the state’s remaining unspent funds from the Coronavirus Relief Act, a $150 billion bailout from the federal government to states.

Some have raised concerns about whether the money could be spent directly to schools because CARES Act funding is generally limited to offsetting direct costs incurred due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Legislative leaders suggested Tuesday, as Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey did a month ago to Bridge, that schools should have greater flexibility to use those federal dollars. 

Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, told Bridge schools can pay for the expenses because they face large deficits due to the pandemic.

“Entrusting local education leaders with the flexibility to make more and better decisions will increase opportunities for educational enrichment and help improve student achievement,” Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said in a news release. 

“Our plan will help them accomplish that.”

Highlights of the plan, which is expected to be introduced in the House Education Committee this week, include

  • An $800 per pupil one-time payment to K-12 schools for distance learning plans and classroom health and safety measures. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the plan would allow schools to use the funding in any way they want (such as backfilling general budgets hobbled by reductions in School Aid Fund) or would be restricted.
  • A $500 per teacher payment as hazard and overtime pay and to help cover costs incurred due to transitioning to distance learning teaching plans.
  • $80 million to intermediate school districts to assist schools in distance learning plans and safety measures.
  • The elimination of the state “seat time” requirement that requires students to be in school buildings for a minimum amount of time during an academic year. The change would allow for more remote learning if some school officials deem that necessary.
  • A requirement that all students in kindergarten through fifth grade who want to be in a classroom be allowed to go to school every day. Some districts that have announced fall plans expect students to split their time between classroom and homebound learning to limit contact among pupils.
  • A decrease of forgivable snow days from five days a year to two, based on the expectation that schools will be better set up for remote learning than in the past and can continue education for snowbound students. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the snow-day decrease was a one-year change because of the pandemic or permanent.
  • Some type of state testing would continue. A release from the Republican House leadership said benchmark assessments would “provide detailed information to parents and teachers about where a student needs additional help, ensuring kids do not fall behind in the wake of the public health crisis.”
  • The proposal would require school districts to work with local health departments to establish safety requirements for extracurricular activities and sports in addition to regular school safety measures. Most school districts are already coordinating school reopening efforts with local health officials.

The GOP plan emphasizes flexibility on reopening plans between school districts. 

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this crisis, it’s that health and safety decisions should be made at the local level, not with sweeping statewide mandates,” said Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township. “As a former teacher, I want what’s best for our kids’ education and more importantly, their health. This plan delivers that.”

Even with the proposed $1.3 billion boost, Michigan schools still face huge budget problems. Plummeting tax revenue left the state school funds $1.2 billion short for the 2019-20 budget year which ends Sept. 30, and in a $1.1 billion hole in 2020-21. In addition, schools are estimated to face about $1 billion in new costs connected to increased remote learning and safety precautions.

Schools still could be asked to, in effect, refund the current budget year’s $1.2 billion shortfall.

School leaders said the GOP proposal was a good start.

“We appreciate Republican lawmakers recognizing the critical role funding will play in reopening schools safely this fall, and we’re pleased to see a sense of urgency in discussing the resources schools will need,” Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools in southern Wayne County, said in a news release. 

“While this plan doesn't solve the $3.3 billion deficit schools are facing to reopen safely this fall, it's a very good place to start that discussion and we appreciate the Republican leadership putting it on the table.”

Scott Menzel, superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District, said the $1.3  billion “might buy a reprieve for a year, so from that perspective, it would be a godsend.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created an advisory panel that is expected to make recommendations June 30 for how to safely reopen Michigan schools. 

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said it was “encouraging to see Republicans in the Legislature acknowledge that education funding and the flexibility to prioritize learning in a safe environment is critically important.

“Governor Whitmer will continue to work with everyone who is serious about developing a clear plan for schools across the state that prioritizes safety and learning, and she will have more to announce June 30.”

Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.


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