Michigan House votes to boost school funding, ban transgender athletes

A man and a woman stand in front of the steps of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing.
Michigan lawmakers have some decisions to make to reconcile differences in their proposed school spending plans. (Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press)

The Michigan House and Senate approved separate school spending plans this week, setting in motion negotiations over whether to reduce debt or invest in new teacher recruitment and mental health efforts. 

House lawmakers on Thursday passed a $19.9 billion school aid budget that increases spending by 15%, pays down pension debt, and prohibits transgender girls from playing on girls’ scholastic sports teams.

The vote was 65-38 with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed.

The Senate passed its own $17.9 billion school aid budget on Wednesday on a 20-15 vote, without any support from Democrats.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had proposed an $18.4 billion education budget that invests heavily in teacher recruitment and retention, a lesser priority for both the House and Senate. 

Now it’s up to a bipartisan conference committee to reconcile the disparate plans. 

What is clear is that any deal will boost education spending above the current $17 billion budget. With a recovering economy, a revenue surplus, and billions in federal COVID relief, lawmakers see opportunities to cut taxes and pay down debt, while still having enough to invest in new programs. 

Sen. Dale Zorn, a Republican from Onsted, said in a written statement that it’s important to provide tax relief for families dealing with inflation. 

Rosemary Bayer, the Senate’s assistant Democratic whip, wants the state to make up for years of insufficient investment in schools.

“There are real uses for the money, but there is a group of Republicans who don’t want to spend it,” said Bayer, of Keego Harbor near Pontiac.

Senate Democrats had sought to decrease funding for online charter school students, increase funding for traditional public school students, and provide $1.5 billion for a teacher-retention bonus program Whitmer proposed. Republicans voted down those efforts but allowed one amendment that would provide $6 million for mental health support, security, and structural repairs to Oxford High School, where a student with a gun killed four and injured seven last year.

The House budget would increase per-pupil base funding by $300, bringing it to $9,000. The Senate version calls for $9,150 per student. The governor’s proposal falls in between at $9,135 but exempts online schools from the increase.

The House bill also adds a $1.7 billion payment to reduce the state’s $33.7 billion unfunded pension liability in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.

Democrats prefer to direct that money toward investments in special education, teacher recruitment, and funding for at-risk students such as English learners and economically disadvantaged children.

The House budget “simply does not provide the support Michigan children, Michigan teachers, Michigan schools, and Michigan’s future needs,” Rep. Regina Weiss of Oak Park argued on the House floor Thursday. 

“When we fall short of funding our public school system, we all suffer,” she added.

Earlier, House Republicans rebuffed her attempt to remove language requiring public school districts to prohibit transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams. Weiss said that requirement would force schools to discriminate, shame, and single out students in ways that encourage bullying. 

Republicans say it’s a matter of fairness and opportunities for cisgender females.

State Rep. Brad Paquette, a Republican from Niles who sponsored the school budget bill, phrased the argument in religious terms. “An individual that God made as a boy has distinct physical advantages over an individual that God made as a girl,” he said. Paquette is vice chair of the House Education Committee and chair of the School Aid and Michigan Department of Education Budget Subcommittee.

The school aid budget is part of a larger spending package the House and Senate passed this week to fund state agencies over the state’s next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. 

Administrators hope for agreement on the school aid budget much sooner so they have certainty before July 1, the start of the fiscal year for school districts.

Many changes are expected before the final version reaches Whitmer’s desk.

“A budget is a statement of priorities — and this budget plan prioritizes educating children, improving our economy, and supporting families struggling with increasing costs,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, a Republican from Midland.

At a news conference in Grand Rapids Thursday, state Superintendent Michael Rice told reporters he is hoping for a compromise that will increase funding for English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, whose educational needs are greater than other students’. He also wants the Legislature to fund the governor’s proposals for retention bonuses and for infrastructure improvements. 

Note: This story has been updated to correct Sen. Dale Zorn’s town of residence.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chakbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org

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