Left to right: Bethany B., mother of four; Luke B., father of three; Amanda S., mother of five
Under normal conditions, children benefit from their parents making active choices about their education. Most Michiganders continue to recognize this, even as this year’s return to school is anything but normal.
Every two years, the Mackinac Center sponsors a statewide voter survey. The newest edition shows Michigan’s support for educational options has persisted. About 60% favor the state’s Schools of Choice program, which provides full state funding for students who enroll across district lines. Nearly as many would like Michigan to adopt education savings accounts or tax-credit scholarships, which would enable more families to choose private education. Twice as many voters say our state has “too little” as opposed to “too much” choice. This is an encouraging foundation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, educational choice is more important than ever. Students already have differing interests, aptitudes and obstacles. The pandemic has altered life for most families, and each one must consider its own underlying medical issues and levels of risk tolerance, making an option that works for some inappropriate for others.
Parents’ experiences with pandemic-induced distance learning in the spring was eye-opening. Many parents observed that their children learned more efficiently with fewer distractions, while others saw children struggling in relative solitude. As a result of seeing their children in a new light, more Michigan parents are exercising choice, while respecting that their peers may opt for a different path.
“It’s a really hard, unchartered time that we are in right now, and I think any decision you make is the right one for your family,” said Amanda S., a mother of five from Midland who appeared in a new Mackinac Center back-to-school video. After she wrestled with what to do, she enrolled her children in the local district’s virtual academy. If that doesn’t work out, she says they have a backup plan to homeschool.
Luke B. and his wife both have full-time jobs. They are grateful that their district, Big Rapids Public Schools, has given them choices for educating their three children. “If you’re not comfortable, our school district offers the local online option, then go with that,” he said. “But I think it’s good to have the option if some of us want to go back to in person, to try to get back to normal.”
Not all districts have listened to parents and provided the options needed to accommodate differing needs. Succumbing to union pressure, some started the fall term with closed doors. In many parts of Michigan, families are left to hope that they have a distance learning program that works better than what they experienced a few months ago.
The Mackinac Center’s School at Home website offers information about some alternatives. Families can get a better grasp of whether they are suited to take on homeschooling, or if an online charter school might work better. Unfortunately, a last-minute deal between legislators and the governor set up a funding formula that punishes successful schools that are attracting new families. Under the compromise, most of the money stays with the old district that’s no longer educating the child, depriving the new district of money it needs.
For the sake of students who need education options, state lawmakers must find a way to fix this flaw. That move would not only be popular. It would be the right thing to do.