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Opinion | This election, prioritize Michigan’s schoolchildren on your ballot

In 2020, as the nation began to grapple with the threat the COVID-19 pandemic posed, students across the nation — from Florida to Michigan — were kept home in order to keep them safe. This decision, of course, was one that educators and parents alike knew would have consequences on the academic growth of our students, but in the face of a global health emergency, there were no easy answers for officials to find.

Robert McCann
Robert McCann is executive director of the Michigan-based K-12 Alliance.

As these decisions have now become campaign season talking points this year, often while playing loose with the facts, we hear stories about test scores and the struggles students have faced over the past two years. These stories may grab headlines, but for those inside our classrooms, they reinforce the significant need to keep the focus squarely on the continued support of each and every student. 

From adding tutors, reading coaches, social workers and more to the daily lives of students, school leaders know that the pandemic isn’t really over until our kids are succeeding academically, socially and emotionally once again.

Unfortunately, for others, this period of time is serving as an opportunity to inject politics into our classrooms where it is least needed. While both local and national politics have become more polarized than ever, we are now seeing schools and students pulled into those debates like never before and used as pawns in blatant political stunts. 

Lost in the coverage of these stories, which are often based on complete fabrications about what is taking place in schools today, is often the very simple question of whether anyone is stopping to think about what our students both want and need from us as they attempt to move forward from an unprecedented disruption in their lives.

Michigan is just days away from an election that, in addition to selecting our next governor and representatives in Lansing, for many communities will include highly contested and heated school board races. The outcomes of those elections, from top to bottom, will play a significant role in the future of public education in our local communities and across Michigan.

School board elections this year hold the ability to create transformative changes and have arguably never been more important to the future of education. School board members help shape goals, budgets, school personnel and policies that directly impact academic achievement and overall experience. It’s critical that all of us — not only those who have children currently in schools — research who is on the ballot to fill these seats in your community and understand their priorities for your schools.

Similarly, the House and Senate races are in full swing with a mix of returning incumbents and new faces driven by the recent spark in political interest. In the last three years, the pandemic has exposed just how badly broken Michigan’s funding system for public education is due to decades of disinvestment from our representatives in Lansing. Those we are electing to fill these House and Senate seats will be those who decide whether we make the needed investments in our schools, and our students, to reverse that disinvestment. 

While the current K-12 budget made some significant steps in the right direction, and leadership in Lansing deserves credit for that action, we know that difficult decisions are ahead. Much of the funding used to provide the additional resources schools have made available to students the past two years has come from federal COVID-19 relief dollars. This funding has allowed the hiring of those reading coaches, tutors, social workers and others who are making a tremendous difference in the lives of students each and every day currently. Unfortunately, this temporary funding, and the significant resources it added to our state’s budget, will soon run out. It will then be up to our leaders in Lansing to decide whether they want to make the types of investments in our schools that will allow those programs to continue, or whether they will simply disappear.

This long-term work can effectively begin next year if we have the right leaders in place to say enough is enough with a system that has left Michigan’s schools and students behind for far too long. That process can start with all of us by ensuring that we’re asking the right questions to those running for the offices this November, and those questions start with whether their priorities stand with our students or their own politics.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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