As state leaders weigh potentially devastating budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic shutdown, equitable funding for education must be a priority to avoid harming students’ opportunities for success now and for many years.

Recently, Sen. Wayne Schmidt, charged with overseeing Michigan’s K-12 education budget in the State Senate said schools could be looking at a 25 percent cut in funding (out of about $15.9 billion).

The prospect of such a devastating budget cut made people sit up and think about what that would mean in their community’s schools. And while Senator Schmidt described the prospect of such a large cut as “certainly the high end,” it highlights the serious fiscal problems that face our already troubled elementary, middle and high school programs in the coming months and years.

Clearly, laying off a quarter of our educators isn’t an answer. Telling a quarter of our students they won’t have a seat in a school isn’t going to work. Neither will 25 percent pay cuts to teachers at a time when the profession is struggling to attract talent, especially in high-poverty schools.

There’s only one responsible way out of this situation: the federal government must recognize and address states’ need for additional federal support to continue high-quality teaching and learning. And if there are remaining budget shortfalls after federal support, Michigan leaders must take an equitable approach to cuts to ensure the most vulnerable student are shielded from the most dramatic cuts.

Michigan has been hit harder than most states by the pandemic. One estimate of the impact on Michigan cities by the National League of Cities says our state will see the fourth largest reduction in local and state derived revenues, behind only Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Hawaii.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the third federal COVID-19 stimulus package, includes the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). It includes $13.2 billion in emergency aid for public education, of which Michigan is eligible for nearly $390 million.

This falls well short of the approximately $2.4 billion funding shortfall estimated by the State of Michigan for the current and coming fiscal year. These funds can be used for planning for long-term closures, purchasing technology, school sanitization and mental health supports. For more information on these funds, please see the Education Trust-Midwest’s overview of CARES Act dollars here.

Funds are to be distributed to states and then to districts based on their respective share of funding received under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – which is used to allocate federal funds to educate students from low-income families. We commend the Michigan Department of Education’s (MDE) plan to continue to promote equity by distributing CARES Act dollars to local school districts to utilizing the same formula, as called for by a diverse statewide group of stakeholders and advocates called for in a letter to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) in May 2020.

This funding is clearly not enough. Another aid package moved through the U.S. House recently, but has not yet advanced in the U.S. Senate. Here are our recommendations for that package, which we’ve already made known in a letter to our members of U.S. Congress from Michigan.

1. Provide fiscal relief to states and additional support for education
We support the National Governors Association’s request for an additional $500 billion in direct federal aid for states and territories. In addition, we need a major infusion of targeted aid so that childcare providers, K-12 public schools, and colleges and universities can meet the academic and other education-related needs of Michiganders.

Requests from national education and civil rights organizations for at least $25 billion in aid to be allocated to programs serving historically underserved teams, $50 billion in aid for access to high-quality child care, $175 billion in aid to K-12 schools, $50 billion in aid to colleges and universities, and $50 billion in additional categorical aid for education are important steps in the right direction.

Additional federal aid to both make up for lost state and local revenues is needed, as is funding to specifically support the expansion of extended learning opportunities for vulnerable students. For both forms of federal aid, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should include strong protections ensuring that new investment be used to supplement, and not supplant, existing revenue and services.

In addition, any new federal aid should be required to be distributed through equity-driven formulas that recognize the intense needs of Michigan’s vulnerable children and youth and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on these Michigan residents. New federal dollars should also come with requirements that states protect their highest-need schools and school districts from a disproportionate share of cuts, with specific metrics. And while requirements for accountability, reporting and transparency have not been required by the U.S. Department of Education for existing stimulus dollars, they should be included as statutory requirements moving forward.

2. Address massive food insecurity among children and families
The economic impact of the coronavirus crisis on Michigan families cannot be understated. The resulting food insecurity for children and youth of all ages has been massive, intolerable and entirely avoidable.

We are grateful to Congress for enacting provisions designed to improve access to food programs, most notably the “Pandemic EBT” program in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. We hope that Congress will continue to prioritize food security in the next stimulus bill by:

  • Creating a “Pandemic EBT” program for infants and toddlers and for college students from low-income backgrounds;
  • Extending “Pandemic EBT” through the summer months (and longer based on need) for students at all age levels;
  • Significantly expanding food aid by increasing SNAP benefits and eligibility, and relaxing work requirements;
  • Providing increased funding dedicated to outreach so more eligible families can receive SNAP, WIC and other food aid; and
  • Enabling online applications for a wide variety of food and poverty programs

3. Invest in technology equity as a component of emergency preparedness
The emergency move to distance learning quickly exposed longstanding resource inequities that can be found throughout districts, schools and communities. Dependence on online instruction requires a device for each student, reliable high-speed internet, appropriate distance learning tools and resources, and training for students, educators and families.

Technological inequity is already widening gaping disparities in educational opportunity and outcomes. The federal government is uniquely positioned to close those gaps, using its financial and regulatory powers. We ask it to step in to support the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020 to establish an Emergency Connectivity Fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to disburse funds to schools and libraries to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and internet-connected devices.

Schools, parents, students – and job providers – all need certainty. It’s incumbent on Congress to move quickly to avoid the pending educational disaster we’re facing in Michigan and others are facing across the nation.