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GOP proposes $1.3B plan to help K-12 schools reopen

LANSING (AP) — Republicans who control the Michigan Legislature on Tuesday proposed a $1.3 billion plan to help K-12 schools reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, saying districts should have flexibility to start when they want and to offer remote instruction as an alternative if necessary.

The one-time funding, including an $800 per-pupil increase to address new costs related to COVID-19, would come from $3 billion in federal relief. Teachers would get a $500 bonus.

Uncertainty remains because the state’s school aid fund is $1.2 billion short this fiscal year and $1.1 billion below what was expected next budget year due to tax declines from the monthslong lockdown. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pushing Congress for flexibility to use bailout money to fill the holes and for an additional round of funding.

But Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said GOP lawmakers put a proposal on the table now because superintendents and principals “need clarity sooner rather than later.” Their fiscal year starts next week.

While schools typically begin in late August or early September, some with year-round calendars start earlier. The governor previously issued an order giving schools flexibility to resume before the day after Labor Day without needing a state waiver.

Northeast Michigan school leaders welcomed the proposal, but said they need more specifics.

Alpena Public Schools Superintendent John VanWagoner said there are some strong points to the legislation proposed Tuesday, although many details are yet to be identified, such as how the money lawmakers want to give to schools can be spent.

“There’s some training, there’s resources there for curriculum, devices, and other things, and some financial support that really could be useful,” VanWagoner said. “But, again, all of the details are going to be important.”

Like VanWagoner, Alcona Community Schools Superintendent Dan O’Connor said the plan still lacks a lot of the details schools hope to see, although he appreciates the proposal to pump more money into schools.

“That is desperately needed right now,” he said. “To say much needed would be an understatement.”

O’Connor said he is looking forward to more details when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveils her plan next week, and hopes the two plans will merge to form a more concrete plan. Whitmer is expected to announce more details on her plan to safely reopen schools by June 30.

The Republican plan calls for requiring in-person instruction for grades K-5 at a minimum, redefining “attendance” to allow for online learning without reducing schools’ funding and cutting the number of snow day allowances from six to two so remote instruction occurs instead. Districts would work with local health departments on safety requirements for schools, sports and extracurricular activities. They also would do initial benchmark testing to assess if students need additional attention.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a Chesterfield Township Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said the funding would provide immediate “stability” until legislators can further assess the coronavirus’ budget impact and plan future K-12 funding.

“Nobody knows what the fall is going to look like. But we are committed to getting our kids back in the fall,” said Sen. Lana Theis, a Brighton Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “That’s going to look different district to district. … If you’re in Marquette, that’s going to look very different than what school would probably look like in Grand Rapids or Detroit. Our schools need the flexibility that they don’t currently have in that environment to be able to provide an education.”

Schools were closed in March due to COVID-19 and later finished the academic year with remote instruction that in many cases was minimal. Whitmer is expected next week to issue an order outlining minimum safety standards for schools she hopes can reopen for in-person instruction as long as cases do not surge again.

Spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said it is “encouraging” to see Republicans acknowledge the importance of education funding but called it “disheartening” that the plan is a “copy” of a proposal from Great Lakes Education Project, a school choice group co-founded years ago by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Education organizations were generally receptive to the GOP plan, however.

“It doesn’t solve the $3.3 billion in shortages schools are facing this fall, but it’s a solid start to that discussion,” said Bob McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, which represents K-12 superintendents in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. He said there is “a lot to like” about the proposal, and he is hopeful districts can work with Republicans so they get the resources and flexibility they need.

Shirkey said the $1.3 billion would help fill in some “unknowns” facing schools related to coronavirus costs they incurred at the end of the most recent academic year and will confront while preparing for the next school year. “How that reconciles within specific school budgets has yet to be determined,” he said.

After lawmakers adjourn this week, they will not return to session until July 21 at the earliest — around when Congress may consider relaxing how states can spend rescue funds and if additional aid should be approved.

News staff writer Crystal Nelson contributed to this report.

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