This column originally appeared in The Holland Sentinel.
Most of us think of the new year as a time for fresh starts and new opportunities. Too many Michigan parents woke up Jan. 1 trapped in a recurring nightmare for their kids. Nearly 100,000 students and their families in Michigan rang in the new year with alerts from their local districts that bureaucrats decided to lock them out of the classroom. Again.
No teachers. No activities. No friends. No learning. Again.
This week, teachers, students and parents are observing National School Choice Week, and they’re navigating every possible avenue to help kids. They’ve got their eyes set on a new reform and a new petition drive designed to put kids back at the center of the education debate. Someone has to.
Parents of school-aged children could be forgiven if they’re starting to feel like their families have become the public-school bureaucracies’ punching bag.
For almost two years, their kids have absorbed an unstoppable stream of blows from the adults in charge of their education. In 2020, children were the first to bear the devastating brunt of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s unscientific COVID-19 response.
Despite scientific consensus about the virus that said kids were at almost no risk from the coronavirus, and pleas from parents, pediatricians, and school advocates, the governor abruptly cancelled school for the entire state.
Parents flooded school board meetings and legislative hotlines in Lansing demanding a better solution and the padlocks finally came off the doors but the damage was done — and worsening. Test scores plummeted. Children experienced years worth of lost learning. A pediatric mental health crisis exploded from one corner of the state to the next, with anxiety and depression taking a deadly toll on our kids.
Parents asked for help. Taxpayers ponied up $6 billion in school stimulus funding. The legislature also approved new investment in reading scholarships to help students who’d fallen behind during the pandemic — especially those whose families lacked the financial means to pay for the extra help. Gov. Whitmer inexplicably vetoed the new student-focused scholarship spending.
Lawmakers went back to work and approved a new plan to allow Michigan taxpayers to invest up to $500 million a year in extra funding to provide new student opportunity accounts for more than one million public school students, especially to families of special needs students and foster children. The accounts were designed to help families pay for tutoring, after-school programs, transportation, laptops, Internet access, tuition and more.
The governor vetoed that relief, too, because it put parents, not local bureaucracies, in control of some education spending for their kids.
Then the bureaucrats locked students out of school again. Worst, analysts say the closures are disproportionately targeting students with special education needs, our poorest communities, and students of color in struggling districts.
A new petition-gathering effort getting underway will give parents more of a say. With enough petition signatures, Republicans and Democrats will have a fresh opportunity to approve student opportunity accounts with a vote the governor’s barred from vetoing.
Lawmakers would be empowered to equip parents with new educational options, and the bureaucracy won’t be able to stop them.
National School Choice Week is typically a great opportunity to reflect on the difference teachers and classrooms can make in the lives of our kids. This year it’s so much more. It’s a reminder about just what’s at stake. Our kids are counting on us.
— Beth DeShone is executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for choices in public education in Michigan.