Reopen Classrooms or Send Money to Families

State needs to rethink education funding priorities

Many Michigan families are crying out for better learning options for their children than Zoom classrooms. State officials can step in to help but should be prepared to think outside the box.

Elementary and middle schools can still offer in-person instruction at the discretion of local authorities, yet some districts remain shuttered. In one prominent example, Ann Arbor school board members have turned their backs on hundreds of parents who have called on them to re-open classrooms for younger and disabled children.

Districts have little incentive to respond to parent demands, as they are the default schooling assignment for the children who live in a designated area. Some of their leaders disregard growing calls for access to in-person learning, perhaps because they fear union pushback more. Having just completed a board election, Ann Arbor parents have limited immediate recourse to satisfy their demands. Parents in other states have organized a national class-action lawsuit toward similar ends.

A change of heart from Ann Arbor leaders would relieve financial pressures for many lower-income and working-class families, while improving the outlook for student learning and mental health. But the school board and the union thus far have decided to stay fully virtual.

Private schools, on the other hand, are inclined to heed their tuition-paying families. They can assess local conditions and weigh the tradeoffs that enable them to provide a safe schooling environment. Yet they are not legally able to reopen all classrooms. A renewed November health department order mandates remote high school instruction for the remainder of the calendar year. On Monday a group of Catholic schools filed suit against state officials for not allowing high school students and teachers to convene for face-to-face instruction.

The push to restore in-person learning is backed by the latest expert guidance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged schools “should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.” The agency’s case is based on epidemiological considerations as well as broader concerns about student health caused by social isolation. Yet current policy has not made opening school facilities a top priority.

Like it has for K-8 classrooms, the state should let local officials allow in-person instruction at high schools. All students deserve to have this option.

Michigan lawmakers agreed this fall to fund public schools at record levels, backed in part by emergency federal dollars. They also voted to base a large share of state aid based on last year’s student count. Many districts will benefit from the financial protection, since the state’s public schools have experienced nearly a 4% drop in enrollment. (The number of students being educated likely has fallen even more, since the new rules for remote instruction count all pupils who had only one “two-way interaction” with a teacher during a seven-day period in October.)

State policymakers have taken care of school system budgets. Now they should also direct aid to families who are limited to remote education. Grants or tax rebates could help parents pay for child care and at-home learning expenses, or maybe even transportation to another school that provides face-to-face instruction.

The education system’s response to current pandemic challenges highlights some misplaced priorities. It highlights the importance of having state mechanisms in place to aid students and families directly.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.