While COVID-19 has brought its share of challenges to Michigan’s public schools, it has also given them an unprecedented windfall.
Conventional districts and charter schools are absorbing an unprecedented amount of federal funds – over $6 billion identified in a new Mackinac Center report. The way these dollars are handed out tips the scales in certain districts’ favor, wildly in some cases, in ways that clearly don’t match current needs.
Most of the COVID money to be distributed comes through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief, or ESSER, fund. ESSER gives out money to districts according to the same formula used for Title I at-risk programs. As a result, the money has been distributed unevenly. District and charter public schools in Detroit combine to take in $1.5 billion, or about one-quarter of the state’s federal K-12 COVID relief, while serving only one-tenth of the state’s low-income students.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District reaps the entire benefit of this disparity. That’s because the Title I formula rewards DPSCD with funds based on the city’s historic numbers of children in poverty. Those numbers have declined precipitously over the past several decades, along with the overall population. Consequently, DPSCD collects four times more for each current low-income student than the average charter school. The district’s total $1.28 billion in extra COVID relief represents a real bonanza of dollars from Washington.
The first round of relief, the CARES Act, put about half of its funds for Michigan’s K-12 schools into the inequitable ESSER formula. The Detroit district used those funds to give a large raise to its new teachers. The shortcomings of the ESSER formula become more evident in the second and third rounds of federal COVID cash, which give even larger sums than the CARES Act. That has created an even larger gap in federal support between DPSCD and the city’s charters, where low-income learners make up even higher percentages of the student population on average than in DPSCD.
According to Chalkbeat, the district has dedicated nearly a quarter of its relief funds to “personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing, hazard pay, and other measures designed to make schools safe for students.” That money has not overcome union pressure or other obstacles to keep classroom doors open for all students.
Instead, the highly funded Detroit district has reverted to providing only remote instruction, a decision recently extended by the school board through May 11. Conventional districts in Michigan that offered no in-person option in January received most of the CARES Act dollars, at the rate of three times more per pupil than their counterparts.
As lawmakers make future budget decisions, they need a clear picture of how previous decisions have padded many schools’ finances more than others, even as many of those schools fail to offer the options many students need. If ever there were a time to start moving financial support from systems to students and families, that moment has arrived.
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