In few places was the struggle to reopen schools for face-to-face instruction harder and more contentious than in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lena Kauffman and Anna Hoffman, founders of a local advocacy group, still both consider themselves public school supporters, but they also have become believers in giving parents greater ability to choose.
The two moms witnessed prolonged virtual education taking a toll on their children. They started the group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return after being frustrated at the school district’s sluggish decision-making and vague communication about providing in-person instruction. District leaders said they would reopen classrooms on a part-time basis, or at least they would offer support for small groups engaged in virtual learning. By the time parents realized the district was not going to follow through, their opportunity to enroll in other public schools was gone.
The pandemic thus exposed the frustrating limits of families’ ability to take advantage of other options. “Schools of Choice does not work if districts don’t clearly explain to parents their real plans,” Kauffman said.
Between their two families, they moved five of their six kids to private schools, a decision the parents found very satisfying. “St. Francis was a good example of how to make (reopening during a pandemic) work,” Hoffman told Michigan Capitol Confidential. But the burden of paying tuition eliminated private school as an alternative for many parents.
Changes in a rural part of Calhoun County also occurred too late for Dawn Bayman to enroll her 14-year-old son in another district. Her family was compelled to make a break with the local school system, which, she said, left her two special-needs children “out in the cold.” Unreliable internet access put them at a disadvantage when trying to learn remotely.
As the Pennfield School District reopened buildings on a limited basis, it required all students to wear face masks. Bayman’s 6-year-old girl relies on lip reading, making mask-wearing impractical. The district did not accommodate this concern, leading the family to place their daughter in a private Christian school. Bayman homeschooled her son but is ready to sacrifice to pay tuition for his education starting this fall.
But Pinckney’s Beth Bailey wants to keep teaching her daughter at home, after a non- COVID illness disrupted plans to enroll her in a preschool program. “Now that I’ve adjusted to homeschooling, the idea of transitioning my child back into an environment where I have no involvement in her daily learning and growth is unimaginable,” she said.
Families across Michigan have gained a newfound appreciation for flexibility, but many cannot afford to pay for the schooling they would choose to best prepare their children for success in life. A thorny anti-aid provision in our state constitution currently stands in the way of supporting some of those choices. The present moment, however, highlights the need to overcome that barrier and make Michigan a place where educational freedom shines.
As Bayman said, “When a parent chooses a school as a better option, the money should go there too.”