LANSING (AP) - Michigan will spend 4 percent more next year on public schools and pause plans to replace its standardized test with one being developed by a group of states, under a K-12 budget headed toward final approval this week.
A House-Senate conference committee voted 4-1 Tuesday in favor of the nearly $13.9 billion spending plan, which boosts the state's per-pupil funding to districts by at least $50 - less than the $83 minimum increase Gov. Rick Snyder proposed. The lowest-funded districts will get $175 more - higher than the $111 hike in the Republican governor's plan - with the minimum aid rising from $7,076 to $7,251.
Districts also can qualify for more money by meeting "best practices" and get up to $100 more per student if standardized tests scores improve in math, reading or on high school assessments. The funding gap among districts will be $848 per student next fiscal year, down from a disparity of $2,300 when the school finance system was revamped 20 years ago.
Majority Republicans, who cut traditional per-student funding early in Snyder's first term while directing the state to permanently start covering a portion of districts' ballooning retirement expenses - which has become an issue in the gubernatorial race - said the retirement funding cannot be discounted.
It amounts to "$500 per pupil that is being paid for in this budget for retirement costs in our public school system," said Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, who chairs the Senate K-12 budget subcommittee. "It frees up money for school districts to apply in other areas."
One Democrat voted against the legislation, and another - Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids - abstained from voting. He said he preferred the House-passed version of the budget and found it "incredibly difficult" to understand why Detroit Public Schools will get a $50 increase in the traditional foundation grant while a "cyber school in my district is going to get $175 more."
Critics said the minimum $50 per-student funding increase is too little for nearly 150 districts because retirement costs will rise an average of $66 per pupil. They continued lobbying for additional aid before lawmakers meet Wednesday to preliminarily approve two "omnibus" House budget bills expected to incorporate 17 Senate bills that won passage from legislative negotiators in recent days.
"This budget proposal is totally unacceptable and it will send Michigan backwards," said Robert Livernois, superintendent of Warren Consolidated Schools.
But the Great Lakes Education Project, a school-choice advocacy group, said the Legislature struck a "strong blow for equity" and students will benefit from the "dramatic" funding increase.
Legislators balked at the state Education Department's plan to replace the nearly 45-year-old Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) next school year with exams developed by the Smarter Balanced consortium, a group of states - including Michigan - adopting national Common Core standards that spell out what math and English skills students should have at each grade. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about schools' readiness to give the tests on computers, the length of the exams, their complexity and the process by which state officials decided to go with Smarter Balanced.
State officials have said it is too late to change direction and have warned that Michigan's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law may be jeopardized. The bill approved Tuesday directs the state to develop a new MEAP to be given next spring and to seek a waiver or amendment to its existing waiver from the federal law.
The agency is required to request bids for a new standardized test for 2015-16. The new MEAP next year will have to align with the Common Core standards coming online that are designed to develop more critical thinking skills than traditional school work.
Other highlights of the school budget include:
- Nearly $15 million set aside in a reserve fund to pay for a new statewide teacher and administer evaluation system if the Legislative approves separate bills.
- $65 million more to help more at-risk 4-year-olds go to preschool.
- Nearly $1 million to hire six full-time Education Department employees to monitor more lower-performing districts.
- Increasing the required minimum number of school days from 175 in 2014-15 to 180 in 2015-16.