Many Michigan school districts are getting the large funding increases they have long sought. Much more money means much more responsibility to be successful.
A new Mackinac Center report estimates Michigan public schools will receive over $6 billion in COVID relief funds. This comes on top of the per-pupil revenue they received last year in non-pandemic dollars from all sources which, in inflation-adjusted terms, set a record.
Our analysis covers three rounds of federal stimulus bills and one temporary rewrite of the state funding formula. A credible case can be made for the first installment of federal relief. The March 2020 CARES Act, which helped Michigan lawmakers backfill losses in income and sales taxes, was intended to fund schools through the last academic year. It also provided an extra $721 million to Michigan schools. If shared evenly, that amount would cover the Centers for Disease Control’s estimate of $442 per pupil needed to mitigate the coronavirus’ spread.
But most of the money was distributed under a formula that gave some districts much more, and others considerably less, than $442 for each student. At least $400 million of the $721 million had gone unspent as of November. Many districts continued to offer only remote instruction, and they received the most from the CARES Act.
But Washington couldn’t stop there, even as it became apparent that the pandemic did not hurt tax revenues as much as first feared. Two increasingly bigger federal packages followed, giving Michigan schools an extra $1.68 billion and $3.7 billion, respectively.
While Congress gave states some minor discretion over this money, it opted to divvy up most of it by using an inequitable formula that goes beyond student numbers or characteristics. Some districts will reap a giant windfall: Flint and Benton Harbor will get $50,000 and nearly $30,000 per student, respectively. Meanwhile, East Grand Rapids, DeWitt and Novi are slated to receive less than $400 per student. On the whole, districts that have offered more in-person instruction have received fewer federal COVID relief dollars.
Those figures don’t include a fourth source of extra funding, which came last August when Lansing lawmakers decided to finance schools based 75% on the fall 2019 pupil count rather than the fall’s enrollment, which they expected to plummet. As a result, schools were funded for many students they no longer served — to the tune of nearly $350 million. The state also chipped in another $50 million to help schools that attracted more students during ongoing COVID-induced disruptions.
Combined, these four sources of COVID relief guarantee at least an additional $5.9 billion to Michigan public schools, and likely millions more.
One wonders how some districts will use it all. With sound judgement, they could use the funds for one-time expenses that deliver long-term benefits, but much of the aid may simply create future obligations and calls for yet more funding. A well-informed public can help discourage intemperate responses to the financial windfall.