Opinion: COVID-19 shows why Michigan families need education options

Ben DeGrow

“I thought our local public school was going to enrich our lives,” said Michigan mom Katie Woodhams, explaining why she needed to change her children’s learning environment. “I never imagined my kids would come home from school crying every day.”

Today Woodhams is thankful that her family has found a new school and an approach to learning that works better for them. Her children are among the nearly one-third of Michigan students who exercised some kind of education choice outside of their home district last year. In the meantime, struggles with pandemic learning have given many other parents more reasons to appreciate the other options that are available.

Those who use school choice receive tangible benefits, writes DeGrow.

Schools in neighboring districts; cyber schools; charter schools; private schools; and homeschooling: These options make a real difference in the lives of many families. While COVID-19 has brought a crippling loss in learning to students caught without options, the stories of many families in Michigan show that school choice can be a lifesaver. 

We all saw what happened when the coronavirus closed schools last spring: Students who lacked alternatives suffered, and the children with the greatest needs often suffered the most. From schools that struggled to put lessons online, to students who didn’t respond well to faceless instruction or who couldn’t access the internet, we saw many gaps in the educational system, and students fell through the cracks.

Broader access to suitable learning opportunities could have helped us better weather the disruption that came from closing school buildings. Today, it’s still one of the most practical responses leaders can make in the pandemic’s aftermath. Why? Because the pressures of COVID-19 have caused more families to realize their need for new options. And those who use school choice to match their child’s needs to an educational setting that works for them receive tangible benefits.

In Portage, Woodhams never imagined she’d pull her children from their neighborhood school, but her concern for their emotional well-being drove her to explore other options. 

“I didn't feel equipped to do full homeschool,” she says. “Virtual school is the perfect mix of public school with teachers, structured assignments and endless help and flexibility.”

Michelle Schuett is grateful for the ability to find another school setting for her autistic daughter, whose experiences in kindergarten and first grade left her anxious and reluctant to return. Not only was her daughter bullied by peers, she was even ridiculed by some teachers and staff. But everything changed when their family discovered Light of the World Academy, a public charter school in Livingston County. 

“The staff at our little school is amazing, the most kind-hearted teachers you could ask for,” says Schuett. “Our daughter has flourished here, even accomplishing things we were never sure she would.”

In Greenville, the Worden family chose Link Learning, a hybrid program operated by Berrien Springs Public Schools in partnership with various districts. The Wordens say Link Learning lets them create an individualized path for their daughter, now a senior, which allowed her to build personal relationships while preparing for college or career. She can work ahead or slow down in various subjects according to her needs.

These three stories of unexpected needs and eagerness for options are echoed at homes throughout our state. Parents and educators understand that more learning takes place in environments where students feel respected and challenged.

Michigan policymakers should pay attention to the many Michigan families who have found ways to access schools of their choice, as well as to those desperately seeking better opportunities than those pandemic instruction has provided. If they do this, they can help all students to be resilient after 2020’s losses.

This National School Choice Week (which runs through Saturday) and beyond, we need more families directly invested in students’ success for our state to recognize its full potential.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Videos sharing these families’ stories and of others in Michigan who have benefited from educational options can be found at MiSchoolChoice.org/stories.