(The Center Square) – In a Tuesday virtual news conference, school groups called on the Republican-led legislature to work together with Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to release roughly $1.6 billion in federal education money meant to help students recover learning losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which includes districts in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, and St. Clair counties, said “Michigan students will pay the price” if lawmakers don’t release federal funds soon.
Dr. Randy Liepa, superintendent of Michigan’s Wayne Regional Education Service Agency (RESA), said the schools only have 15 months to spend those federal funds currently held up in the State Capitol. He called on lawmakers to release those funds so schools can pursue renovations such as new ventilation systems and hiring summer school teachers and staff.
House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, defended the House GOP recovery plan.
“We are passionately fighting for Michigan’s youth, families, and businesses. Our plan simply doesn’t throw in all the money all at once," Wentworth said in a statement. "It’s not what we do in our households and it’s not what we’re going to do with taxpayer dollars. We’re going to be careful, responsible, and accountable so we can open schools safely, get people back to work, help our struggling businesses and families, and get Michigan back on track.”
McCann said school administrators are accountable to local taxpayers if money is misspent.
“It is federal dollars, and our schools are going to be fully accountable to that money to the federal government,” McCann said. “So for the state House to weigh in and say they need to hold money back to ensure accountability, they’re not even the right ones to be accountable to.”
Administrators said they require a budget by June 1.
The GOP COVID-19 recovery plan ties federal school funding to Whitmer relinquishing the pandemic powers that she’s held for nearly a year, which she has used to shut down private industries for up to eight months.
RESA Superintendent Kevin Miller said students were “caught in the middle of this political struggle in Lansing” and urged lawmakers to “put politics aside” so kids can get back to learning.
Republicans want kids to return to in-person instruction as soon as possible, while Whitmer has encouraged schools to return by March 1.
School instruction varies by location. Macomb Independent School District Superintendent Mike DeVault said 20 out of 22 districts have returned to in-person learning. However, Kalamazoo announced it will continue virtual instruction through this school year, and Ann Arbor hasn’t committed to a date to return to in-person instruction.
School funding appears to be one of the few bargaining chips the GOP holds against Whitmer in a power struggle that has been ongoing since March 2020.
McCann said he agrees with the GOP that students learn better with in-person instruction.
“We’ve said since the beginning; we know students learn better when they’re in classrooms,” McCann said. “But, when students have been through an unprecedented disruption in their lives, many of whom have been trying to learn from home and often, unfortunately, in an unstable home environment, it’s not as simple as bringing them back into the classroom and assuming everything will be fine.”
DeVault said that he doesn’t want to charge parents for sending kids to summer school to recover from nearly a year of learning loss — a service federal money could cover.
“A lot of kids need in-person instruction,” he said, adding that children taking pre-algebra generally do better with in-person instruction compared to those learning virtually.