The vocabulary word of the year is “uncertainty.” My grandchildren are among the over 1.4 million Michigan kids heading back to school right now, and “uncertainty” is just one of the words we’ve been using to describe the school year. Some of the words may not be fit to print.
Families and teachers around the state are making the best of a highly uncertain situation, and whether kids are learning online, in person, or something in between, nothing is as it was. Children learning face-to-face are doing so while practicing social distancing and using an unfamiliar schedule. Kids doing school online must battle internet glitches and other technological challenges. Parents and teachers? Well they’re juggling all kinds of balls right now as they try to put on brave faces for young learners. And while we know the COVID-19 pandemic is the driver for all these changes, it is underscored by the long-standing need to look at Michigan’s school funding formula and create a system that is weighted to make sure the schools and students with the greatest needs are the ones who receive the most money.
A high-quality public education is a path to equity and the foundation of economic growth. Unfortunately, this path has been blocked for too many children of color in Michigan—and the pandemic has made the path even less navigable. Due to long-standing inequitable policies, children of color are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, are more likely to be retained in grade at all levels, change schools more frequently and miss more school. Ultimately, children of color and those from families with low incomes are less likely to graduate from high school or be college- and career-ready. These disparities can be traced to public policies that have limited economic opportunity for many families and fail to recognize the added cost of teaching children who live in high-poverty neighborhoods.
When education funding falls short, schools in high-poverty communities struggle the most.
Parents facing economic insecurity are dealing not only with this uncertain school year, but are struggling to meet their family’s basic needs like food, housing and clothing while being laid off from their jobs. And schools that had trouble providing the basics to students prior to 2020 are now encountering massive barriers when it comes to making sure learners have the equipment and resources they need to thrive amid the pandemic.
Let’s use internet connectivity as an example. According to our Kids Count in Michigan data, 87.7% of children in Michigan live in homes with access to the internet. That means 266,000 kids do not. Internet access by county ranges between 65% and 96%. The 10 counties with the lowest percentages of kids with internet access are all rural, but in Detroit just 65% and in Flint just 63% of kids have access. Local school districts and officials know their students and their needs best, and we’re hopeful that all schools will look at creative ways to support the learning needs of all kids, regardless of what technology they have at home. The move to online learning puts students with lower incomes and the schools that serve them at risk of falling behind during this already stressful time, and is just one of dozens of examples of how weighted funding could improve our system.
But as we’ve been saying for months, Michiganders will not recover from the economic effects of COVID-19 without federal funding. Thankfully, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that $65 million in CARES Act funding will go through the GEER (Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund) to economically disadvantaged districts. It will help fund necessities like internet connectivity, student mental health care, remote learning materials, teacher training and other health and safety needs for students who struggle. But in the grand scheme of Michigan’s school funding, $65 million is not nearly enough to make a real impact.
Fifty percent of students in Michigan receive free and reduced-price lunch, and in many schools the rate is much higher. Last spring, when COVID-19 required an end of the in-person school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Pandemic EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) program through the Families First Coronavirus Act. Michigan was the first state to take part in the program when it launched, helping around 900,000 children and their families get access to free or reduced-price meals they would otherwise have had while in school. Pandemic EBT is currently set to expire this month, though, and we know families will continue to struggle to put food on the table well beyond that. We must make sure the federal government extends these benefits and continues to get additional financial relief to states through this pandemic and until the economy recovers.
So what can you do? First, send the parents, teachers and students in your life a big virtual hug, because they’re dealing with some unimaginable stress right now. Second, encourage your state lawmakers to support a weighted school funding formula in the 2021 state budget and beyond. And third (actually, do this first), as Congress continues to negotiate additional federal COVID-19 relief, please take a second to ask U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters to keep fighting for federal funding for needs like food assistance, housing assistance, and other needs facing families as the school year starts. “Uncertainty” may be the word of the year, but about this I’m certain: We need to make sure our kids have what they need to stay strong in the midst of it all—to not only survive, but thrive.