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Opinion | Greater transparency is needed between parents, Michigan schools

Families should have opportunities to get more information from schools that can help them provide a motivating and effective education.

Ben DeGrow
Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Midland. (Courtesy photo)

Yet today parents in different parts of the state are hampered in their efforts to see what their children are taught. Forest Hills Public Schools in west Michigan sent a $400,000 bill to parents who formally sought documents that show how racial issues are being presented in the classroom. More recently, a Rochester mom filed suit with help from the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation after her district stonewalled requests to view the list of materials used in a particular high school course and the associated teacher training.

As COVID-related restrictions have eased, so have the heated exchanges at board of education meetings. But parents have raised alarms on how classrooms operate. Keeping materials in the dark can only fuel the tension and conflict.

Trusting partnerships between parents and professional educators grounded in shared information are crucial to improving a child’s chances to succeed in school. And greater transparency builds trust. There’s a growing movement to give moms and dads easier access to what’s being taught in public schools. At least a dozen states have taken up legislation to enhance academic transparency, an approach that can be a true win-win for both parents and teachers.

These state-based efforts capture the spirit of the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, which affirms that parents are entitled “to inspect...any instructional material used as part of the educational curriculum for the student.” Michigan law also recognizes parents’ rights to review the “curriculum, textbooks, and teaching materials” used at their child’s school, at what school officials deem “a reasonable time and place.”

It’s good to let parents see what has been assigned to teach, whether it provides a balanced presentation and subject matter appropriate for their children to learn. If concerns remain, parents can exercise their options to enroll in a more suitable public school. Bills have been introduced in both chambers of Michigan’s Legislature that aim to add this kind of sunshine.

Technology enables parents to review materials without having to visit schools or depend on school employees. Schools could upload already approved lesson plans or create Google documents that list the textbooks and other classroom materials. This online posting could even save time for some teachers, who report spending hours searching the internet for instructional resources.

Curricular materials could be added to the same webpage each district must have to post its budgets, employee benefits and fiscal audits. Michigan has made decent progress in providing financial transparency, though gaps sometimes appear in local reporting. These pages complement the state’s helpful online postings of detailed accounting spreadsheets and school-level revenues and expenses.

But there are two distinct opportunities for the state to make school financial reporting more meaningful and effective. First, break down school-level spending so users can more easily see how much schools allot to classrooms versus other supports, and employee salaries as opposed to utilities, supplies and other services.

Second, make Michigan a national leader by tracking and posting how the spending of specific allocations ties to results for students. A great place to test this would be on the $6 billion in extra federal COVID relief rolling into the state’s district and charter schools. Though approved by Congress in 2020 and 2021, most of those dollars have not yet been spent. It would be a great benefit to know which specific uses and strategies closely connect to better student achievement and other measures of well-being.

Enhanced disclosure of academic materials and of school spending are bound together by a common theme. They reflect the fact that money should follow and focus on student needs, and that parents play a crucial role in deciding on learning environments that will work best. More sunshine and better information make that goal more achievable.

As a general rule, parents know their children best and are most invested in their success. Clearing up their concerns about what classrooms teach and how well schools use their growing resources should be a high priority.

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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