Michigan parents are wrestling with trying to remain financially solvent and deal with schooling options for their children in the midst of restrictions and uncertainty due to COVID-19. Many families are opting for in-person instruction, but some are experimenting with new, creative alternatives. Other parents, unfortunately, lack options and are being forced into online programs they do not believe serve their children well.
In Ann Arbor and Detroit, for example, the teachers union wants to do remote learning with no in-class options. The Detroit Federation of Teachers is even authorizing an illegal strike if teachers have to go back to school. This is pushing parents who disagree to explore other options.
MLive reports on one growing phenomenon: learning pods. This model of learning involves families teaming up to hire their own teacher for a small number of students – a private micro-school, basically. The instruction can be in-person, online or a combination.
The article frames this as a controversial development, however, because it could “lead to negative outcomes” by “widening the opportunity gap in already affluent communities.” Indeed, one parent admitted to feeling “very lucky that we’ve had choices. We know that is not the case for everybody.”
For their part, public school officials don’t like the idea. An Ann Arbor official said, “There is a concern that forming these pods based on neighborhoods can create equity issues solely based on how Ann Arbor neighborhoods are populated.”
The lack of equitable educational options is a legitimate concern, but it’s not a new problem. Wealthier families have always had more choices in education. They can more easily move within the borders of a higher-performing district or afford private school tuition. They can more easily pay for extra tutoring, testing and college prep work, music lessons and many other educational opportunities outside of the public school system.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to close other inequality gaps.
Seeing economic-based inequalities in other spheres of life, the government provides fiscal support to low-income families so they can better afford goods and services they need, such as food, housing, transportation and child care. Families receive tax credits or vouchers so they can afford the services they need.
That’s not the case in education: Low-income families’ options are often limited by what public schools are willing to offer. That’s because 50 years ago, Michigan voters amended the state constitution to lock low-income families into public schools; as a result, state spending may only support attendance at public schools. In other words, every dime of the nearly $15,000 per student spent in Michigan is restricted to public schools.
While funding options in Michigan are limited to public schools, parents need more learning options than ever, especially during this pandemic. Many local school districts will fail to provide what parents need. Policymakers should be doing everything they can to support families’ decisions. This means making funding flexible and portable, having it follow the student to the parents’ choice of schooling.
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