Whitmer taps surplus for 9% increase in Michigan school spending

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stands in front of a podium while talking to reporters.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled a budget proposal that includes big investments in tutoring, preschool, and an increase in per-pupil funding. (Tracie Mauriello/Chalkbeat)

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new education budget proposal features a boost in per pupil funding for public schools, a new tutoring program, and a broad expansion of state-funded preschool.

The proposal would draw on $18 billion from the School Aid Fund, $74 million from the state’s general fund and $991 million in supplemental, one-time funding for fiscal year 2023. Altogether, it amounts to a 9% increase in state school aid spending over last year’s budget, which education leaders had hailed as a “generational” investment.

“This budget builds on the Get MI Kids Back on Track plan, which offers every student individual tutoring, after-school support, and other personalized learning supports,” Whitmer told reporters after she presented her budget to lawmakers. “There are resources geared toward improving classroom experiences, increasing compensation for educators, and investing in what kids need,” she added.

The governor’s spending request comes amid a record $9 billion state surplus, including $4 billion in the school aid fund.

It’s Whitmer’s fifth state budget, but the first she presented to a Legislature controlled by her own party.

Republican lawmakers said they generally support Whitmer’s most salient education proposals — tutoring and expanded preschool — but have questions about the details and concerns about whether her proposals would be sustainable in leaner times.

“I am a little surprised at how big the budget is, because it has grown tremendously,” said state Rep. Jaime Greene, Republican vice chair of the House Education Committee.

Per pupil funding would increase

Whitmer is proposing that the state raise the base per pupil funding for public schools to $9,608 from $9,150. 

For students who receive special education, schools currently receive 75% of the per pupil allowance in addition to required cost reimbursements. Whitmer’s proposal would increase the rate to 87.5%, while keeping the cost reimbursement portion. 

A funding decrease for online charter schools

Amid a general funding increase, Whitmer wants fully online charter schools to receive 20% less funding than brick-and-mortar schools.

Other states have similar policies, and the idea has been repeatedly proposed in Michigan, including by former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican. GOP lawmakers have nixed the idea each year, but it now has a chance of passing.

Experts have long argued that online charter schools have lower costs, because they generally don’t transport students or maintain school buildings. This is harder to prove in Michigan, because many so-called cyber charters are operated by private, for-profit management companies that don’t have to disclose their spending.

“There is no way in the world that a cyber school should be getting full funding per pupil,” said Mike Addonizio, an emeritus professor of education policy at Wayne State University. “They don’t have brick-and-mortar schools to run.”

Charter school advocates criticized the proposal. Amy Dunlap, chairwoman of Public School Options’ Michigan chapter, said in a statement posted to Twitter that it is confounding that Whitmer’s budget “rightly” prioritizes the needs of students still struggling from the pandemic, but cut funding for cyber charter students.

“For thousands of children and their parents, as well as the public school teachers who teach there, these schools have provided a lifeline before, during, and after the pandemic,” Dunlap said.

State Budget Director Chris Harkins told reporters after the budget presentation that the cyber charter cut is “intended to reflect the lack of some of the infrastructure needs that some of our perhaps more traditional schools have.”

Charter schools have funding needs, too, Greene said.

“Cyber schools still have to pay their teachers, still have to purchase curriculum, still have to pay the administration,” she said in an interview on the House floor. “A lot of cyber schools also offer in-person opportunities for sports, and tutoring. … So why would they be punished when per-pupil funding still funds the same things for cyber schools? They’re essentially punishing them for being a cyber school.”

Budget calls for another preschool expansion

Whitmer wants to offer free preschool to every 4-year-old in Michigan within four years. Her budget takes a step in that direction, asking lawmakers to invest an additional $306 million in the state’s Great Start Readiness Program.

The money would allow thousands more children to enroll, expand the program from four to five days a week, and boost funding by 5%, to $9,608 per student, the same as K-12 funding. GSRP funding drew even with K-12 for the first time last year.

Republican state Rep. Nancy DeBoer of Holland agrees that free preschool should be available to more children but isn’t convinced the state should foot the bill for families who can afford it. 

Currently, eligibility is based on family income and other factors such as homelessness and disability. 

“I don’t think the state needs to pay for everybody at age 4,” said DeBoer, a former teacher and a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid. “I can understand if people are in difficult situations and don’t have a healthy place for their children, but otherwise, no.”

Greene said Whitmer’s preschool proposal leaves out parents who want to stay home with their children.

“Not all moms want to send their 4-year-olds to preschool. What about opportunities so they can work and also stay with their kids?” asked Greene, who homeschools her own children in Richmond. She suggested state support for job sharing and additional job security for working parents. 

Greene also expressed concerns about the educator shortage, which could make it more difficult to staff preschool for all.

Recent expansions of the Great Start Readiness Program have been slowed by teacher shortages, exacerbated by disparities in pay. The $20,000 pay gap between teachers in Michigan’s state-funded preschool program and K-3 teachers is among the largest in the U.S.

“Right now it’s really hard to find staff,” said Amerra Macki, director of A & W Day Care Center, which operates four GSRP classrooms in Detroit. “I would love to see more money so we can hire more people.”

To draw more educators into early education, Whitmer is asking lawmakers for $50 million to assess the problem, expand training programs, and boost recruitment efforts.

Her preschool proposal also includes grants to help new GSRP classrooms open and to help existing programs expand.

Whitmer wants some of this funding to be approved quickly in a supplemental budget bill, rather than waiting for the state budgeting process, which likely won’t conclude for months. Among those proposals is $18 million to expand a pilot preschool program for 3-year-olds.

Budget offers $100 million for teacher recruitment and retention

Districts continue to struggle with a shortage of educators at all grade levels.

To alleviate that, Whitmer is calling for continued investment in the MI Future Educator program created last year. It provides scholarships of up to $10,000 per year for education majors and stipends of up to $9,600 per semester during student teaching. Whitmer budgeted $100 million for the program, up from the current $75 million.

Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said his organization supports the investment in teacher recruitment and retention. 

“By ensuring that our schools have the funds and talent necessary for excellent learning environments and experiences, Michigan is investing in its future thought leaders and changemakers — our kids,” Wotruba said in a statement.

Whitmer revives tutoring plan to mitigate learning loss

Whitmer will try again to roll out a comprehensive statewide tutoring program. Last year, Republicans rebuffed her $280 million proposal for individualized tutoring but agreed to $52 million in grants that districts could use for tutoring.  

Whitmer is resurrecting that proposal and requesting that the state pass a supplemental spending package before spring break that includes $300 million for tutoring. 

She first proposed the program after a media collaborative including Chalkbeat, Bridge Michigan, and the Detroit Free Press reported that Michigan, unlike other states, had not provided funding or a structure for a coordinated tutoring program.  

Republicans preferred to provide $1,000 per pupil in grants that parents could use for private tutoring and instruction, but Whitmer vetoed that plan in 2021. A different tutoring proposal led by Republicans did not pass out of the House last year.

Greene hopes there will be flexibility in Get MI Kids Back on Track for private tutoring and online programs from vendors.

“Parents should be able to use the funding toward programs like that when their kids need a little bit of a boost,” Greene said.

Literacy and mental health would get more resources

Whitmer’s budget proposal also includes several other spending items, including: 

  • $42 million for literacy coaches at intermediate school districts
  • $1.2 million for 10 new regional early literacy hubs
  • $94 million for the Detroit Public Schools Community District for literacy programs; the dollar amount was part of the settlement of a literacy lawsuit that alleged the state denied Detroit students their right to a basic education. 
  • $4 million to get students books and other literacy materials using the Dolly Parton Imagination Library
  • $300 million for literacy professional development
  • $300 million for school mental-health staffing and programming to be spent over two years.

Trina Tocco, executive director of the Michigan Education Justice Coalition, said Whitmer’s budget proposal “recognizes that our leaders in Lansing have chronically underfunded our schools for decades, depriving students of the education they deserve.”

But Tocco said the budget doesn’t fully meet the needs of the education system, and state leaders must dig deeper.

“It’s time that our leaders in Lansing start talking about where additional funds will come from, because our kids deserve the investment,” Tocco said.

Free meals for all

Whitmer also proposed to spend $160 million to provide free meals in school for all students and another $1 million to help districts forgive debts that accumulated because of families who couldn’t afford to pay for breakfast and lunch.

The Whitmer proposal comes after a federal program that guaranteed universal school meals for students during the COVID-19 pandemic expired in July.

“We know that kids struggle to learn when they are also struggling with hunger, and ensuring that not a single student in our state has to go to school and face that reality is one of the best investments we can possibly make,” said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which represents 123 school districts in the state. 

Currently, families must make below 185% of the federal poverty level to qualify for free and reduced priced meals at school. For example, a family of four must make $51,338 or less to qualify for reduced priced meals, and $36,075 or less a year to qualify for free meals.

In Michigan, 581 of the state’s 889 school districts and charter schools qualified for federal support to provide districtwide free school meals, but only 323 of them — or 55.6% of eligible districts — opted in for the school year 2021-22, The Detroit News reported.

Nancy Lindman, public policy and research director for the Michigan Association of United Ways, applauded the proposal on Wednesday as “a good start” to remove “barriers to learning and kids thriving.”

“That is a great investment across the board,” she said. “It’s been tested, it’s been tried in some communities. To take this next step to make sure that we’ve got this universally in place is going to make our state a better place for kids to get an education.” 

The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1, but lawmakers typically try to pass the school aid budget by the end of June, because school district fiscal years begin on July 1.

Bridge Michigan reporter Yue Stella Yu contributed to this report.

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

Isabel Lohman covers education for Bridge Michigan. Reach her at ilohman@bridgemi.com.

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at klevin@chalkbeat.org.

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