Michigan’s latest investment in education could mean big things for mental health advocacy in school districts around the state—something particularly important as students return to the classroom amid the pandemic. 

MICHIGAN—Touted as a historic education budget put together by Democrats and Republicans, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month signed a bill that will give schools across the state a much-needed boost when it comes to per-student funding. 

It prioritizes mental health in schools by setting forth a route for Michigan school districts to get the right tools they may need to have a strong and positive student body emotionally and mentally, as well as academically. 

‘Coming Back to the Unknown’: A Look at Students and Mental Health 

Recognizing the need for more school counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers, the budget puts forth over $240 million to allow districts to hire more people to fill these positions. Each counselor would mean mental health support to 250 students, psychologists would serve groups of 500 students, and new nurses would be added for every 750 students, according to the budget.

The bill also boosts funding for school-based mental health programming by about $17 million, allowing districts to employ programs such as the TRAILS program, which involves districts improving youth access to evidence-based mental health services by training school mental health professionals in areas such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness.  

The measures are much needed, according to Daun Kittinger, a mother of five and crisis clinician at Lifeways Community Mental Health in Jackson. 

She said she has seen a lack of mental health care resources in schools after watching her children go through school systems as well as by working with children in schools and in the community through her job.  

Kittinger said that for many students, access to mental health treatments and programs is restricted to what school districts offer because there is less family interaction and support in some families.  

“A lot of kids are going home to parents who work two jobs. Some parents are, you know, just not involved enough with these kids,” she said. 

Kittinger said the uncertainty surrounding Michigan students during the coronavirus pandemic — encompassing everything from knowing whether they’d be in a physical classroom or learning virtually — has exacerbated some issues.  

“With COVID, the social aspect has gone away, so these kids are being integrated back into schools (and) it’s all new to them,” Kittinger told The ‘Gander Monday. “There’s not a lot of support in schools currently that can deal with the amount of kids that are coming back to the unknown.” 

Closing the Gap: A Look at the Numbers   

The signing of House Bill 4411 allows the state to eliminate a large funding gap between districts—a long-standing goal when it comes to balancing the minimum and maximum allowances.

The bill finalizes the 2022 School Aid budget, which totals more than $17 billion and included $85.4 million from the state’s general fund. It’s a substantial increase over last year’s budget and officials say it will not include a raise in taxes.  

In a statement released after signing the bill, Whitmer stressed that every student deserves an equal opportunity to achieve an education and succeed.  

“The funding provided to our schools today marks the end of a 27-year journey to close the gap between our districts,” the governor said. “This equalized funding will improve the quality of educational opportunities for schools and students across the state and set a solid foundation for which to build our future.” 

The newly signed bill helps close the education gap by closing the gap between how much school districts are allotted for each enrolled student. Here’s how it works: 

Traditionally, public districts and charter schools get about $8,100 from the state for each student enrolled. The state grant will increase by $589 — or 7 percent — for most districts, a total that will now sit around 8,700. Schools at the higher end will get about $170 — a 2 percent boost. Intermediate school districts also will get a 4 percent funding increase.  

Districts will get the money based on need, and then the funding is to go toward classrooms, mental health programs, and early childhood education, as well as to hire more staff. 

The measures taken by state lawmakers is an important one, according to Michigan Teacher of the year Owen Bondono, who said in a statement last month that technological and infrastructural disparities among districts have only been more prevalent during the coronavirus pandemic.  

“All students deserve access to high-quality teaching, resources, and educational spaces, and this budget helps ensure an effective education no matter where you live and attend school,” Bondono said.