Saint Andrew’s hall in Detroit expected to reopen soon after floor renovations

Opinion: Michigan should invest in student mobility scholarships

Ben DeGrow
Not all Michigan families can make the same sacrifices to access better schools, at least not without imposing some other serious financial strain, DeGrow writes.

Michigan’s automakers helped shape our world by empowering untold millions to take the wheel and more easily reach their chosen destinations. Today, some of the state’s most disadvantaged children could use a similar boost to better fulfill their educational goals.

Not long ago, Myesha Williams’ family drove nearly 100 miles a day to get their kids between their west Detroit home and various district and charter schools. “We chose the best schools for our kids,” Williams says. “Even though you may have school choice, you don’t always have transportation.”

Not all Michigan families can make the same sacrifices to access better schools, at least not without imposing some other serious financial strain. Williams acknowledges that Detroit’s bus service has improved in recent years, but that some routes today remain unreliable. That becomes a problem when a student needs one of those routes to get to a school that will help them succeed. She believes access to ridesharing services could help fill a need: “It would be great if they could have that sort of option for families.”

There’s a way to make that happen. Student mobility scholarships would give parents who apply a limited-use, digital debit account to help them afford a customized route to school. Families like the Williamses could purchase a public transit pass or a prepaid subscription to use a state-approved ridesharing service. School districts and charter schools would also be eligible to earn this money if they expanded their transportation services to help these families.

According to scholars at the Urban Institute, more than 90% of Michigan families live within five miles of a public elementary school. At some point, though, many parents of young children realize the right school may not be the closest one. Some, especially in urban areas, are just looking for a campus that is safe and conducive to learning. As kids get older and seek out a quality high school, more travel is often required.

Families who have the means to seek out better options for their children pay private school tuition or relocate to a suburban district. Others who are unable to make that kind of investment may find a nearby charter school or a school in a neighboring district that allows them to transfer in. Nearly one in four Michigan public school students exercise choice, most of whom need to find a way to travel to a brick and mortar campus.

Yet a family’s motivation to make informed choices about their children’s education may exceed their ability to afford a safe and reliable means to access it. About one-third of charter schools, which are typically lower funded than other public schools, provide transportation. And with few exceptions, districts accepting students through Schools of Choice or similar programs do not provide nonresidents with the transportation services they may need.

Student mobility scholarships would dole out educational opportunity more fairly. Providing Michigan families who struggle to make ends meet with scholarships can expand their map of viable education options. It could better enable them to get into the best possible school, because it’s no longer out of reach — financially or geographically. Or it could ease their burden of getting different kids to different school locations in a way that gives them more flexibility to meet work schedules or other important family demands.

In a 2018 Mackinac Center survey, dozens of Michigan charter school parents cited “transportation challenges” as the main reason why their children were not enrolled in their first-choice school. Four years earlier, nearly 30% of Detroit parents told the Center for Reinventing Public Education that the hurdle of finding a way to get kids to and from school made it much more difficult to choose the best learning environment.

Michigan can build on its historic legacy as an automotive pioneer by using student-based transportation funding to create a more level school choice playing field. The time has come to test drive student mobility scholarships.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.