The recent gubernatorial election in Virginia should capture the attention of Michigan policymakers. A surprising victory by the Republican candidate was “powered by parents,” according to University of Virginia professor Brad Wilcox and American Enterprise Institute researcher Max Eden. Parents here are hoping for someone to champion their cause.
Many factors go into shaping voters’ decisions in a statewide contest. Yet surely the insistence of Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe that parents in Virginia shouldn’t be “telling schools what they teach” led to a significant backlash. Moms (especially) and dads endured extended months of school disruptions and closures, only to return to controversies over everything from mask-wearing to textbooks.
Michigan officials should pay heed to similar concerns emanating from their own constituents. Some level of parental frustration is ever present, though the ability to relocate to another district, pay tuition or enroll in another public school has historically helped to solve many families’ educational challenges.
But the COVID pandemic altered the political dynamics surrounding schools, as some parents who took on a bigger mortgage in hopes of a better schooling experience have joined the ranks of advocates for change. This latter group had been mostly filled by lower-income families, more of whom have experienced the public school system’s shortcomings.
The potential for Michigan parents to vote as a bloc in a statewide election has not been tested before. Virginia’s experience shows that a critical mass of disaffected parents can – ignited by the disrespect of elected officials or candidates – provoke a strong reaction. In our state, the experience has primarily come at the local level, with tense school board meetings in Grand Ledge and recall elections in places like Chippewa Valley Schools.
Some foes of education freedom wrongly want to dismiss the push for greater parental rights in education as a “political tactic.” But its core principle is at least given lip service in Michigan law, which states that it’s “the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children.”
The Michigan Legislature recently took an important step that would give parents more power to exercise that right, by adopting the Student Opportunity Scholarships plan. The Republican-backed legislation sought to create tax credit-financed scholarship accounts that put education funds directly in parents’ hands to help ensure their children’s needs are met. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto pen struck it down, but voters may have the opportunity to bring the issue back with a petition drive.
Most of the students eligible to receive scholarship accounts under this proposal would be enrolled in public schools. Their parents could use dollars for things like tutoring, curriculum materials, special-needs therapies, testing fees and apprenticeship programs to supplement their children’s education. Private school tuition aid is also an option.
But there is another policy change that lawmakers could make to show their confidence in parents and their important role. Districts and charter schools should post their curriculum materials online. Enhancing transparency in this way would help parents make informed decisions and promote greater accountability and clearer lines of communication with school officials. It could also reduce the contentiousness that has been evident of late.
Without a doubt, disputes over what is taught in classrooms have reached well beyond Virginia. Here in Michigan, parents of public school students have a vested interest in knowing up front what their children will be learning. Currently, they have the right to come into the district office and review textbooks and curriculum materials. Yet when parents in a Grand Rapids area school district filed a request for classroom materials on a highly controversial matter, they were sent a bill for $400,000.
Legislators in neighboring Wisconsin have sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would open the window on what is being taught. Senate Bill 463 would require each district to post curriculum materials, and the policies and procedures for adopting them, in an accessible place on its website. This added degree of sunshine should clarify disputes about what’s being taught and better enable families to offer informed feedback about academic content. It should also let them know if they may need to choose another schooling option, reducing the potential for conflict.
For those looking to give parents greater voice and authority over their children’s education, scholarship accounts and curriculum transparency represent a potent policy combination.
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