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How Gretchen Whitmer wants to spend $18.4 billion on Michigan schools

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposes unprecedented investments in student learning, teacher retention and recruitment and in mental health. (Shutterstock)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled her $18.4-billion education budget plan Wednesday, prioritizing deep financial investments in student learning, mental health support, and more than $2 billion to retain teachers and staff and attract new people to the profession.

Whitmer’s plan for the next fiscal year exceeds the current year school aid budget of $17.1 billion, though lawmakers have added additional money since its initial approval last year. The prior year’s school aid budget was $15.5 billion. The governor’s ambitious education plan — which also includes a sharp increase for higher education — is made possible by a combination of higher forecasted state budget surpluses and billions of dollars in federal one-time COVID relief funds.

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During her state of the state address last month, Whitmer promised she would present the “biggest state education funding increase in more than 20 years — without raising taxes” while also outlining her vision for targeted tax cuts, including for people with pensions.

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The state has about a $7 billion surplus along with more than $7 billion in money that still needs to be used from federal COVID-19 relief money,

State budget director Christopher Harkins presented the governor’s overall budget proposal of $74.1 billion, which included the education plan, to the House and Senate appropriation committees. There are several steps before Michigan has an official budget for the next fiscal year, not least of which is negotiating its terms with a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Republican lawmakers Wednesday critiqued the size of the Whitmer budget, indicating they would like to divert more money to tax cuts. There are also likely to be differences on teacher pay.

Whitmer said her proposed budget would make schools safer, address the strain the pandemic has placed on students and staff, help students "catch up" from pandemic learning losses and "ensure that every kid can go back to just being a kid."

Improving educational outcomes and getting more students to get a college degree or certificate have been signature issues for the Democratic governor. Student achievement in the state had been middling for years compared to other states and Michigan falls below the national average in the percentage of working-age adults with college degrees. Her budget plan suggests the bounty of new money can help to transform Michigan classrooms.

"We're on the precipice of really being able to make some long overdue investments in our state," Whitmer said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon at Grand Ledge High School, where she was joined by several teachers and administrators.

Her proposal would put more money into classrooms and mean "more personalized learning, new textbooks and more extracurricular, AP and honors courses as well," Whitmer said.

The plan includes boosting annual per-pupil funding from $8,700 to $9,135, a 5-percent increase.

The governor also wants to allocate more funding for more vulnerable students, including low-income students, special education students and English language learners. Her plans would spend an additional $222 million on low-income students.

Michigan’s teacher shortage is severe and getting worse, with far fewer college students entering the profession. Whitmer’s proposal includes $600 million for educator recruitment. She would create the Michigan Future Educator Fellowship, a “competitive scholarship available to eligible first-time degree seekers and career changers to lower the cost of becoming a K-12 teacher,” according to the budget presentation.

She also wants to give school workers a $2,000 bonus this year and next. Then, in year three, she wants teachers and certified professionals to receive $3,000, with another $4,000 the following year. Whitmer proposes that funds for those bonuses — intended to address teacher and staff shortages that have complicated school efforts to stay open during the pandemic — be appropriated in fiscal year 2022-23, and used for bonuses over the next 3-5 years.

Earlier this week, school leaders discussed some of the strains placed on the teaching profession, challenges made worse by COVID-19.

“It's a very complex issue when we're talking about the teacher profession because it deals with their well-being in their profession, whether they feel good about their work,” Ben Mainka, superintendent of Swartz Creek Community Schools, said Tuesday during a roundtable of school leaders.

“It used to be, you know, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, you walked in and you really got to teach kids and now there's a lot more that's been added to that.”

Whitmer wants to invest $150 million on “grow your own” programs which allows districts and regional partners to recruit, train and retain teachers from their own communities.

"It's a tough time to work in schools," Whitmer said. "Staff shortages, quarantines, increased trauma and learning loss make their jobs even more difficult. So I'm grateful to every school staffer who shows up for our kids."

The governor also proposed raising the per-pupil dollars providers receive from the state for the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s free preschool program for eligible four-year-olds.

In higher education, Whitmer proposed a 5-percent bump in annual funding for the state’s universities and community colleges in the next fiscal year, along with a one-time 5 percent increase on operating costs. If agreed to by the legislature, the state’s public universities would get $76.3 in one-time funding and an additional $76.3 million in ongoing funding. Community colleges would receive $16.2 million in one-time funding and $16.2 million more in ongoing funding.

Michigan’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1, but the Legislature normally aims to pass the education part of the budget before July 1, the start of the fiscal year for school districts.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, called Whitmer’s proposals a “good old fashioned spending spree” and showed some hesitancy toward retention bonuses for school workers.

“You know, honestly, I think it brings up some hard feelings from a couple of years ago, with the whole ‘who’s essential and who’s not essential,’” Albert said. “So, I'll take a look at it. And I’ll see, you know, what the (Republican) caucus can get behind. But I'm more focused on finding a way to have some fair and balanced relief for everybody in the state of Michigan.”

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who serves on the appropriations committee and the education and career readiness committee, said he thinks teacher retention bonuses would help teachers stay in the field but isn’t sure if retention bonuses for other school workers will work. With the end of federal COVID money, he said he believes more people will come to work in schools.

As for Whitmer’s proposal to increase the per-pupil spending on students from $8,700 to $9,135, Runestad said he needs to look more into it.

“I’m definitely supportive of where we recently equalized all the schools. That is probably something I would support. But let me do some research with that first.”

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Student mental health has captured the attention of school officials and parents all across the state. Studies have chronicled the mental strain placed on students during a pandemic and the disruptions that have come with it. Michigan was also traumatized by a deadly school shooting in Oxford last year.

Whitmer’s plan calls for $361 million for student mental health services — a more than six-fold increase over the $53.9 million in school mental health funding in the current budget. 

The plan includes: 

  •  $150 million to expand a program over three years that trains staff on how to help students manage stress and build healthy relationships. 
  • $25 million for universal mental health screenings, 
  • $120 million for mental health professionals and counselors in schools;
  • $50 to expand existing appropriations for mental health grants;
  • $11 million to open 40 new school-based health centers, and 
  • $5 million to expand specialized services for students with severe mental health needs.

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