My son started fifth grade last month, and many more kids around the state are starting school this week. Back to school season is always filled with excitement — learning new subjects and seeing friends — and anxiety.
Last year had a significant learning curve , filled with figuring out what “synchronous” and “asynchronous” meant, how to navigate online test taking, and, honestly, just some general loneliness as a single child learning from home while both his parents worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year feels a bit more normal, with full-day, in-person schooling and seeing the traditional “back to school” photos on social media, but with it comes a lot more heightened anxiety and concern, extra masks and continued conversations about social and physical distancing in a classroom setting.
Not surprisingly, kids, parents and teachers are all feeling some pressure after the last 18 months of uncertainty to give our students the best opportunity to learn and grow this year. And hopefully, we’ve provided them with some of the social-emotional and academic supports needed to do so.
The Legislature passed, with strong bipartisan support, the education budget for 2021-2022 school year and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed it in June. The budget relied on stronger than anticipated state revenues as well as an infusion of federal relief funds. It’s the largest K-12 budget in recent history, at nearly $17 billion. And that historic amount of funding did translate into some historic opportunities.
Notably, the approved budget gives schools a foundation allowance of $8,700 per pupil, effectively closing the funding gap that has existed since Proposal A of 1994 between schools. The budget also includes a 67% increase in funding for the Great Start Readiness Program, including $121 million in federal relief funds, to increase the allocation per child from $7,250 to $8,700 for a full day program to align with the K-12 per-pupil payment. This funding parity will help our preschool programs attract and retain highly qualified educators to support some of our youngest students and makes it possible for all eligible children to take advantage of the program.
Additionally, the budget includes $240 million for an expansion of the number of school psychologists, social workers counselors and nurses; increases in the 10-cents a meal program, which support districts and sponsors of child care centers in the purchase of locally grown fruits and vegetables; and expansions in mental health services for students.
At the same time, a current year funding supplemental was enacted that allocated about $4.5 billion in federal aid to schools. Federal law allows school districts to use the funds in different ways, including addressing learning loss, evidence-based summer enrichment programs or comprehensive after-school programs, among others.
However, some funding gaps in our K-12 budget still need to be addressed. While the school budget did include increased funding for special education cost reimbursements and a doubling of state investment in supports for English-language learners, the budget continues to neglect the need for a true weighted funding formula, which recognizes that kids who grow up in poverty, who are English-language learners or who have other special needs require additional resources to achieve a high-quality education.
The budget also only provided a small $2.5 million increase to the at-risk program, which will continue to require prorated payments to schools serving this population. Finally, the budget did not increase the adult education appropriation from its current $26 million, despite the fact that many counties in Michigan lack adult education programs while having need for them. With $10 million more, Michigan could serve 8,000 more students.
The Legislature is back in Lansing this month to work on the remaining Fiscal Year 2022 budget priorities in advance of the Sept. 30 deadline. Recognizing that learning opportunities begin far before a child steps foot inside a traditional K-12 school, we hope that included in this discussion is allocation of the remaining $1.4 billion in federal aid for childcare, including improvements in our child care subsidy program as well as allocating grants intending to help providers meet operations costs, such as payroll, rent, and other facility needs, and to keep their doors open.
Our students over the last 18 months faced unprecedented and historic challenges, but also opportunities. We’ve provided our children with the opportunity to learn new skills through remote education and to be creative in completing assignments.
Our children have grown more resilient, more aware of the community that surrounds them and more compassionate for others experiencing hardship. And although a lot of anxiety still surrounds the start of the school year, I am hopeful that these opportunities to learn and grow will continue.
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