This piece appeared in the Detroit Free Press by Lily Altavena. 

State lawmakers passed a $21.5 billion school aid budget Wednesday that targets funding to schools serving Michigan’s most vulnerable students, increasing funding for those who come from low-income households and those with disabilities, while making lunch and breakfast free to every public school student.

The budget, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign, increases funding for economically disadvantaged students, creating what lawmakers call an opportunity index. That means schools may receive more funding per low-income student than before.

Low-income student funding will be increased by $204.5 million. The budget adds $13.3 million in funding for English Learner students. The budget also builds on adjustments to funding for special education made last year, at an increase of $310 million. Michigan will join several states in making school meals free for all pre-K-12 public school students, at a cost of $160 million.

Base per-student funding — the money all public schools receive per student — was increased to $9,608 from $9,150, a 5% increase from last year.

Janiala Young, who will be a sophomore at Renaissance High School in Detroit next school year, said the needs in classrooms are massive. She recalled her experience with a revolving door of math teachers in middle school, going without a teacher in the subject at times. She’s still trying to gain confidence in math, she said. Experiences like that have shaped why she’s become a student activist, involved in advocating for local policy changes.

“If our youth don’t do it … then no one is really going to take time out of their day to attempt to experience it or … to come and help us,” she said.

State Sen. Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton, chair of the senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Pre K-12, said the school aid budget intentionally strengthened funding for communities long ignored.

“Parents and families and kids and educators really need to know that this Legislature is going to prioritize communities that really need support and have been disinvested in for decades,” he said Wednesday evening. “And so we’re going to right that wrong, and really find a pathway for more equitable education for all kids.”

Education advocates hailed the spending on low-income students as necessary.

“This year’s school aid budget represents a giant step toward righting past wrongs and ensuring that all Michigan students have access to an excellent public school education,” Alice Thompson, chair of the education committee for Detroit Branch NAACP, wrote in a news release.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s coming to schools next school year:

Universal school meals

Under the new budget, $160 million in new funding will go to making meals free for every student.

Michigan will join California, Colorado and Maine in passing universal school meal programs. The $160 million in new funding will be combined with federal school breakfast and lunch money to allow the state’s public schools to serve free meals.

School food and nutrition directors said the 2022-23 school year was a challenging one for students facing food insecurity. Pandemic-era school meal rules expired at the beginning of the school year, meaning meals were no longer free. School meal debt added up for many students, whose families may not have been used to paying for school meals or struggled to keep up with ballooning food prices. They are hopeful universal meals will put an end to meal debt.

But, advocates warn that this doesn’t mean families should stop filling out income eligibility forms typically sent home at the beginning of the school year. Schools still need federal aid for meals to help cover the new universal meal program, which hinges on the number of meals served to low-income students. Other grants and funding also depend on income eligibility data determined through those forms.

Increases for at-risk students

This budget increases funding for low-income students by $204.5 million, a 27% increase from last year.

Lawmakers revamped the at-risk funding system for schools. Public schools receive a base per-student amount, regardless of income status: Last year, the base was $9,150. On top of that, Michigan sent an extra 11.5% of that base for every low-income student a school served, about $1,000.

Under the revamped system passed Wednesday, lawmakers created an opportunity index: That means schools could receive between 11.5% to 15.3% of the base funding per low-income student in addition to the base funding. Schools that serve a higher proportion of low-income students would get the higher percentage of the base. Nearly 54% of Michigan students are considered economically disadvantaged.

Camilleri credited the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Michigan, for bringing the idea of an opportunity index to him, including examples from other states. Amber Arellano, executive director of EdTrust-Midwest, called the budget’s passage “a moment of great progress.”

“This is the beginning of a real conversation about what fair funding should look like in Michigan,” she wrote in a news release.

Camilleri, a former educator, said he thinks back to his own time teaching in Detroit, and the resources he could have used in the classroom if there had been more funding.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have had to fundraise to get a classroom library, maybe I wouldn’t have had to scrounge to build a curriculum, maybe more teachers would be willing to teach alongside me and create a stable school environment for our students who need that type of stable community support,” he said.

English Learners get a boost

The English Learner funding will grow by $13.3 million, a 50% increase from last year.

Schools that serve high populations of English language learners said the funding they’ve received in past years for language programs has not been enough to educate these students. This budget includes a significant increase for English Learners, about 94,000 of Michigan’s 1.4 million public school students.

Special education increases

Special education funding will be increased by $310 million.

Before 2022, the funding system reimbursed schools for about 30% of special education expenses, plus 70% of transportation costs. The reimbursement rate stems from a 1980 lawsuit that led a state court to mandate that the state must pay at least 28.6% of special education costs.

Before the funding system was revised last year in a bipartisan push, the state counted the reimbursed special education expenses toward a special education student’s base per pupil funding, instead of on top of it.

School district leaders said those calculations vastly undercounted how much it takes to provide special education, and that meant schools were routinely taking general fund money that could have gone to other programs to cover special education costs.

The new system funds special education students based on per-student funding, plus 28.6% of their special education costs. Lawmakers planned to phase this system in over two years: Last school year, schools received 75% of per-student amount plus the 28.6%. This school year, under the school aid bill just passed, schools will receive 100% of the per-student amount ($9,608) plus the 28.6%.