For two decades, rural communities in this state and across the country have been overlooked. Michigan lost 45 percent of our manufacturing jobs from 1998 to 2010, impacting not just bigger manufacturing hubs, but small rural towns throughout the state. Many politicians stood and watched idly by as we lost tens of thousands of jobs, and our local economies tanked. During that same time, we saw deaths from opioid use increase 500 percent annually in Michigan only to continue surging year after year thereafter.
What do our leaders think is going to happen in the years to come if our national response to COVID-19 is only to bail out big corporations while small towns in Michigan and across the country get a drop in the bucket? COVID-19 is threatening to exacerbate challenges for Michigan’s rural communities not just now, but for many years to come. One of the biggest threats is to rural public schools that children rely on for their education, nutrition and as a pathway to economic success.
Michigan has already chronically underinvested in education because of a funding system pushed by the likes of Betsy DeVos in the 1990s that cut funding to our public schools. Michigan ranked 15th in the nation in revenue per student in 2007. By 2014, the state fell to 44th in the United States — with our rural schools being hit especially hard.
The fact is that these children and public schools have been overlooked for decades by many in this state and across the nation. It continues until this day. Not even half a percent of CARES Act dollars are going to K-12 public schools, proving the Trump administration doesn’t see public schools as a priority. And if the disparities that exist today are not addressed now by the federal government in their COVID-19 stimulus packages, these children and communities are at risk of being forgotten once again.
At a very minimum, the federal government must ensure that students have access to high-speed internet. A third of Michigan’s public school students don’t have access to the internet or the technology to learn at home. Michigan, like many other states, has limited broadband access in rural areas. But this is not a new problem, and it’s one the federal government should be investing money into immediately.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has to make it a priority to go to bat for these schoolchildren to get the resources our communities need. Pushing for grants so families can send their children to private schools is not going to cut it. Asking Congress for at least $2 billion more to expand internet access for public school children would do a lot better. These children need more resources now. Their education and economic success depend on it.
Ellen Offen is a former teacher and former member of the Ann Arbor school board. She serves as vice president on the board of Protect Our Public Schools.