Congress has now passed three major COVID relief bills, providing schools with significant extra dollars. Since taxpayers are on the hook for this windfall, there should be some strings attached.

The state Legislature should condition sending out this latest round of money in the American Rescue Plan on whether schools have returned to in-person learning.

That seems a fair exchange.

Given face-to-face learning is what President Joe Biden and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer say they want, the promise of additional funding should serve as an incentive to get the districts (and teachers unions) who’ve resisted bringing children back to the classroom on board. It’s a strategy state lawmakers recently tied to a small portion COVID funds, and it seems to be working.

Michigan stands to receive $3.7 billion in K-12 funding in the latest COVID bill. Added to the money from the first two bills, the take for state schools is about $6 billion, far more than they lost in revenue during the pandemic.

In fact, that’s about a third of what the state spends on education each year, says Craig Thiel with the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Schools must spend all the funds by 2025. Thiel calls this the “single largest investment” in state K-12 funding ever.

Yet not all districts benefit equally. Far from it.

As it did with the other massive COVID bills, Congress chose to use Title I as the formula to distribute the federal dollars.

Since Title I is used to boost districts with high percentages of children from low-income families, it’s urban districts that are seeing the largest influxes of cash.

For instance, the Detroit Public Schools Community District will be receiving about $24,000 per child – or $1.2 billion – from the three bailout bills. Flint public schools will get more than $40,000 per kid.

Yet these districts have delayed getting students back to the classroom. DPSCD started opening schools to students earlier this month, but teachers have not been on board. This is extremely frustrating to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who knows that Detroit kids have suffered by not being in the classroom. Many haven’t engaged at all online and are extremely behind in their learning.

Plymouth-Canton schools, on the other hand, are pretty much back to full-time in-person learning, and the district is only receiving $722 per child.

COVID-19 has impacted all students, regardless of where they live or what school they attend. All schools have had to take cautionary measures as they bring kids back to the classroom.

Thiel has argued for using the smaller percentage of “discretionary” federal funds to make the per-student allotment slightly more equitable.

While they can’t alter the Title I funding mechanism, lawmakers could include targets districts must meet before the funding is sent out. The Legislature earlier this year tried to tie $840 million in federal school aid to a provision that would limit Whitmer’s power to close schools. She vetoed that measure. The governor also vetoed $87 million in federal aid to private schools, whose students have been in-person since the beginning of the school year.

It’s hard to justify sending thousands of extra dollars to districts that refuse to offer in-person learning. The Legislature should use its power to ensure districts are doing what’s right for Michigan students before flooding them with cash.

— The Detroit News