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"Once-in-a-generation opportunity": Public school leaders call for state funding changes

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Michigan should stop taking money out of the school aid fund to supplement its general budget, and take other measures to ensure adequate long-term public school funding, a coalition of public education groups argued in a recent letter to House Speaker Joe Tate.

Among other things, the groups want the state to stop requiring that school districts put a portion of their state funding toward retiree health care costs. That mandate has been in place since 2010 to cover what was then a huge debt. But earlier this year, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that teacher retiree health care costs are now fully-funded with a surplus. She’s proposed putting the surplus — currently pegged at $670 million, or about $500 per Michigan student annually — back into K-12 schools.

Matt Schueller, director of government relations with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said that’s exactly what should happen. “We believe that the reason we have these savings is because of the contributions public schools and their employees have been making, and that it's only right that that goes directly back into public schools,” he said.

Robert McCann, head of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, called making that change “a really important opportunity for our state, and one that is critical that we get right this year.”

“Because it isn't just a one-time increase in funding,” McCann said. “This is a permanent increase in spending power for schools that could never be taken away.

“We're going to be doing everything we can to make sure that it's part of the budget this year, because this is really a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to finally start getting school funding back on track in Michigan.”

Another major item in the letter: asking that the state begin phasing out transfers from the school aid fund to the general fund budget. For more than a decade now, the state has taken well over $1 billion from that fund to fill other budget holes.

McCann said that needs to end, but public education advocates understand it won’t happen immediately. “So what we're asking is that the legislature reduce that number this year by 25%, and commit in writing to phasing that out and reducing it to zero over time,” he said. “Because our kids need every bit of support that they can get.”

Other asks in the letter include a request that state lawmakers commit to finalizing the yearly education budget by June 1. The school budget year generally starts in July, and education leaders say it’s crucial that they know how much state revenue to expect before completing their own budgets. The letter also notes that inflation has been eating away at their purchasing power, and asks the state “increase funding for core student services above the rate of inflation.”

The letter acknowledges and expresses appreciation for the past two years’ education budgets, which have included historic levels of funding and a significant bump in the per-pupil allotment school districts receive each year. But Schueller, with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said public school leaders are eyeing and trying to prepare for a near future where overall state revenues start to plateau, and the billions of federal COVID relief dollars districts’ received start to run out.

“We’re very grateful for the funding increases that we have seen,” Schueller said. “We would absolutely argue it's not enough.”

Copyright 2024 Michigan Public. To see more, visit Michigan Public.

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