The following is an opinion from State Representative Gretchen Driskell (D-Saline).
This week, the Legislature took up the state education budget for the coming fiscal year. House Bill 4228 contains the funding for K-12 schools, community colleges and higher education. The bill has passed the House and Senate and now goes to Gov. Rick Snyder for his signature. The house also passed House Bill 4328, the general budget bill for fiscal year 2014, which will likely pass the Senate the first week in June. As a legislator, I had to make difficult decisions about these two bills in order to represent our district in the way that I promised during my campaign.
The education budget contains several positive points. Funding for Great Start Readiness Program grants was increased by $65 million, which will provide preschool for many at-risk children across the state. Children who take part in early education programs are less likely to have behavioral issues in school, drop out of school or enter the criminal justice system. Community colleges will get a 2 percent increase and funding for offering more online courses, which will broaden the opportunity for Michigan residents to continue their education. After taking a 15 percent decrease two years ago in the higher education budget, it is good to see a slight (2 percent) increase.
The biggest shortcoming is the K-12 budget. The increase in the Foundation Allowance for per-pupil funding is too small. The per-pupil funding for classroom use had a very slight increase. Looking at some of the districts in our area, we have increases of $5 (Ann Arbor Public Schools), $11 (Chelsea School District), $9 (Dexter Community School District), $21 (Manchester Community Schools), $14 (Saline Area Schools) and $64 (Whitmore Lake Public Schools). Superintendents and education professionals across my district supported a vote for the funding increases, despite our mutual agreement that they were inadequate. Any increase in education funding is good, and that’s why I voted for it. However, this budget does little to reverse the more than $470 per-pupil cut in funding in the last two years. Therefore, our schools continue to struggle with too large class sizes, curriculum limitations and declining fund balances. What’s more, the School Aid Fund continues to go toward community college and higher education instead of funding K-12 schools, which is its intended purpose.
I opposed HB 4328, the general budget bill, because I felt it wasn’t good enough for my constituents, although it had some positive aspects to it. Language limiting the ability of the Department of Education to complete implementation of the Common Core standards, which puts the state’s federal waiver under the No Child Behind program in jeopardy, was included in this budget. The Common Core is a set of standards adopted by 45 other states and Michigan has been working toward implementing them for the last three years. These standards will help our children compete with their peers in other states and at a global level. The standards are a basis for developing a local curriculum that will raise the bar and are not a threat to local control of our schools, which I value as much as you do. Education is the most effective job-creation investment we can make, and I promise to continue working to give Michigan’s kids the best education we can give them.
Additionally, this budget does not accept federal funding to expand Medicaid in Michigan. In Washtenaw County, that funding would ensure that nearly 17,000 people who are uninsured at this time would have access to necessary and cost-effective care and would also provide $200 million more funding. More than $4 billion has been cut from local government funding in the past decade and a half, and I believe that the $10 million increase in this budget is insufficient to support our communities’ efforts to provide great places to live and work.
Because the bill was all departments’ budgets in one vote, I was frustrated to be voting no for some great programs. Back in April, I offered an amendment to this bill that would include Healthy Kids Dental funding for Washtenaw and two other counties in the Department of Community Health budget. At the time, my amendment was voted down, but the funding was later included. This successful program will provide access to dental care for thousands of low-income children and has been a success in 75 other Michigan counties. This budget also contains additional funding for veterans’ homes, and separate funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment for vets, something sorely needed to show our respect to those who sacrifice to keep our country safe from harm. Additionally, the proposed budget increases funding to the Meals on Wheels program upon which many low-income seniors rely.
I am honored to have the opportunity to represent you in Lansing, and I pledge to continue to work hard and do my best to represent you in state government. I will continue to advocate for further investment in our education system and local communities, and support local decision-making.