Commentary

MDE Memo Sends Wrong Message

Families need more flexibility

The Michigan Department of Education today issued a memo declaring that efforts taken by public schools to provide remote instruction during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak will not be counted toward state-mandated instruction hours.

The memo sends the wrong message to educators in different district and charter schools who are trying to help families navigate their learning needs in this trying time. If building closures extend beyond the currently required three weeks, this approach becomes especially problematic. State leaders should be striving for more flexible support, not effectively telling educators to pack it in for summer break. This appears to be Gov. Whitmer’s approach to making medical care more widely available during the emergency.

If MDE feels constrained by current state law, then this is an opportunity for the Legislature to intervene. More families may be seeking access to publicly funded cyber schools or district virtual programs as a way to provide some sort of continuation of learning while trying to navigate the current public health crisis.

In the short term, this does not require sending extra emergency dollars to districts. It could mean adding a count date to allow a share of funds to follow students who are seeking out online learning options, or perhaps even providing limited-use accounts to families who may need specific educational supports.

But a debate with longer-term policy implications looms just over the horizon. How can Michigan break down bureaucratic walls that limit innovative public education providers from implementing and sharing best practices? How can Michigan fund student learning that allows families to direct shares of dollars to different courses and other resources as they need them, rather than rely on a slow-moving bureaucracy?

The current crisis is exposing a weakness in the state’s rigid, top-down education infrastructure. The state would be better positioned to handle a situation like this if its public school system were more flexible. Lawmakers should listen to parents and educators who see that students will benefit from a nimbler system that puts their welfare first.