TRAVERSE CITY — Most elected officials agree state funding for K-12 education in Michigan is in need of repair.
That’s where the agreement ends.
After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed her budget in March to add more than $500 million to public education, state senators and house representatives released their proposals in the months following.
The differences have led some to believe that agreeing on a budget will get down to the Sept. 30 wire — and possibly beyond, risking a government shutdown.
“It’s going to go a bit longer than we have the last eight years,” said Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), chair of the school aid appropriations subcommittee.
The deadline — June 30 — for school districts to adopt budgets for the 2019-20 school year has come and gone without an approved state budget.
Whitmer criticized the Republican-led legislature late last month for starting a two-month “vacation” without a deal, leaving school districts in the lurch for the first time in a decade.
Whitmer’s plan calls for an increase in per-pupil funding of $120-$180, but only using a 1.5x formula — meaning the lowest-funded districts would get 1.5 times as much as the highest-funded districts — as opposed to the 2x formula that has been used recently. The House plan also calls for a 1.5x at $120-$180, but the Senate uses the 2x and raises the amount by $270 for the lowest districts.
Christine Thomas-Hill, Traverse City Area Public Schools associate superintendent, said the district’s budget was built on the assumption of Whitmer’s plan being passed, calling it a conservative estimate.
TCAPS continues to be funded at the lowest possible per-pupil amount, which was $7,781 — nearly $4,500 less than other state districts.
Allyson McBride-Culver, president of the Traverse City Education Association, said her union does not typically back any proposals, but she said it is “hard to support the budgets that don’t address huge funding problems for the low-funded districts.”
“Whether it’s the Governor’s version, the House’s or the Senate’s, it still does not address the issue we have — and that’s the inequity in funding,” she said. “In fact, it exacerbates the difference that our TCAPS students receive.”
TCAPS officials and Schmidt have been vocal recently in their calls for equal per-pupil funding, criticizing part of Whitmer’s plan that calls for a weighted formula to factor in higher costs for certain students and rejecting a study from the School Resource Finance Collaborative supporting the weighted formula.
Both have said it benefits the highest-funded districts downstate and ignores northern Michigan and Upper Peninsula schools.
“There’s no doubt that schools could use more money,” TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma said. “But who jumps to the front of the line? Districts with the most money.”
Tim Quinn, who represented northern Michigan on the School Finance Research Collaborative during the two-year study, said that the higher-funded districts, under Whitmer’s plan, would get some more funding but only because of money from local property taxes paid by local property owners.
“It’s not money dished out by the state,” Quinn said.
Quinn said the idea of taking money from the highest-funded districts and giving it to the lowest-funded districts, while it sounds ideal, would undo some of the work done to address equitable funding through Proposal A.
However, a 2019 Michigan State University study shows Michigan ranks 50th in funding growth for public education since Proposal A went into effect in 1994.
Quinn said having every school district receive the same amount of per-pupil funding is “just not going to happen.”
“No matter who howls and how loud and long they howl, that howl is not going to be heard by the majority of legislators in Lansing and get them to make a change in that,” Quinn said. “There’s a solution to get to equitable funding, but it’s not going to happen as a result of somebody screaming ‘This isn’t fair.’”
Quinn and the collaborative believe that addressing four main areas — special education, transportation in rural areas, English language learning and at-risk students/students living in poverty — is the best way to go about repairing public education funding.
“Northern Michigan could benefit greatly in all of those areas,” Quinn said. “All of the students in the state could benefit if that’s where we put our focus.”