This Research Council commentary appeared in the Opinion section of the Detroit News on April 1, 2021.
Michigan is getting $3.7 billion in federal elementary and secondary education relief funds this spring from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), bringing the state’s total haul of education dollars from the three COVID-19 stimulus packages to nearly $6 billion. This is the single largest investment, federal or state, in our public schools’ history.
Just like the previous two rounds of aid passed by Congress, the new funding will provide vastly different dollar amounts for the state’s 1.398 million public K-12 students because of the mechanism used to distribute the aid to districts. While school districts receiving larger per-student allocations will have sufficient federal resources to tackle their students’ pandemic learning losses, the amounts many other school districts receive will help little to meaningfully address learning loss.
While it is the case that some districts were better equipped to navigate the pandemic, many others across the state for various reasons have struggled to meet all their students’ demands. Still, it is abundantly clear that the pandemic disrupted education for ALL Michigan students and many of school re-opening challenges are near universal.
Michigan lawmakers should address what Congress got wrong, again, with the distribution of these funds and guarantee that every student is financially supported at more meaningful levels. To this end, lawmakers should prioritize state budget resources to partially equalize the per-student allocations dictated by the federal formula. Just as they did with the December federal aid.
Recall, last December, Congress passed a supplemental spending bill that sent Michigan just under $1.7 billion in public education relief funds. As it did with the stimulus funds provided in the federal CARES Act the previous spring, Congress directed each state to send 90 percent of their aid ($1.5 billion) directly to local school districts, including charter schools, proportionate to their Title IA allocation. Title IA refers to a section of federal law that provides compensatory education funding to districts and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families.
The fact that the Title IA formula results in different per-student allotments is not surprising. It is supposed to provide differentiated funding to meet the additional learning demands of individual students and schools. However, Congress directed these dollars to assist all students with their pandemic learning challenges. In this light, formula fails align federal resources with student needs. Further, the inequities are amplified because 90 percent of the aid must go out via this formula.
Much of December’s $1.5 billion is just now hitting district budgets. School boards, teachers, and administrators are programming this money NOW for this summer and next fiscal year (July 1 start). Local board members and superintendents across Michigan are just seeing Title IA distorting fiscal effects. The per-student allotments across state’s 800-plus public schools range from more than $7,000 per-student for a handful of districts to less than $300 per-student for 100 districts. The median district will receive about $865 per student.
While appropriating these federal dollars, state lawmakers recognized the funding inequities and stepped in to partially equalize them. In February, they approved $136 million in state dollars to guarantee each district receives at least $450 per student, approximately one-half of the median federal allocation. These equalization payments will go to about 200 districts and charter schools to ensure they receive a minimal amount of pandemic funds. This is an action we recommended last January and are happy to see adopted.
And with this precedent set, the school funding discussion should refocus on the next round of federal relief. The massive scale of Michigan’s ARPA award ($3.7 billion) is more than twice as large as the December package. But it is designed very similarly with at least 90 percent set aside for Title IA. Estimated ARPA district allocations range from $10,000-plus per-student for some districts to less than $1,000 for over 200 districts; the median is $1,900 per student.
Some have called upon lawmakers, as a condition for receiving the next round of federal funds, to require districts and charter schools to offer in-person learning. Using the federal dollars to incent district officials, and teacher unions, to return to in-person learning is a worthy endeavor in the effort to address the disruptions caused to most students by the pandemic. We know that the vast majority of students do best in a face-to-face learning environment.
But, the first order of business should be for state officials to correct what Congress got wrong. State lawmakers should use the limited discretionary resources Congress provided through the ARPA (which amounts to $93 million after set asides for specific programs), supplemented with state dollars, to partially equalize federal allocations.
To bring the districts receiving the least federal allocations up to the median ($1,900 per student) would require lawmakers to appropriate an estimated $950 million to share across nearly 400 districts and charters. Bringing district payments to $1,000 per student (roughly one-half of the median district and equivalent to what lawmakers did most recently) would affect nearly 200 districts and charters and cost the state over $250 million.
Michigan policymakers need to step up where Congress failed. Another round of state supplemental payments will help achieve two important objectives. First, a guarantee that all students, regardless of the school they attend, will have a chance to recover academically what has been taken from them by COVID-19. And, second, that those students most affected by the pandemic are resourced at a higher level to meet their additional learning needs.