Opinion | Michigan’s rural communities, schools are being overlooked again

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.

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Kevin Grand
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 5:52pm

Hmmmmm, so how does an increase in funding from ALL SOURCES for education on a yearly basis, somehow mean a cut?

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 04/28/2020 - 10:00am

Kevin, once it was discovered that Proposal A of 1994 spoke of money for "education" and not money for "K-12 education", funds came out of the School Aid Fund for community colleges and later even for some university aid and also for special programs funded by the state. Then, the percentage taken from districts to pay for retiree costs escalated. The end result was a smaller leftover pot of money that actually was used for K-12 education.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 04/28/2020 - 2:41pm

Mr. Balwinski,

The bottom line within those districts has more to do with the negotiation skills between the respective school boards across Michigan and the bargaining units for their staff, NOT because of Michigan Taxpayers.

Based upon the website for Ms. Offen's group, she is attempting to parlay her organization's unbridled hatred of Betsy DeVos into a surefire method to score more money, only this time by using the Huwan Virus as a distraction.


And just in case wants to see how much money Michigan School Districts are receiving from ALL sources, including the upward trajectory over the last decade, look no further.


Barry Visel
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 9:10pm

Isn’t satellite internet available everywhere? Don’t all public schools get basically the same foundation grant/student to fund education? And, why is it the Federal governments responsibility to provide internet?...why not the State or local government? Jeez, Bridge, I’m not sure why you publish these commentaries...they are not news, and they are not objective, and you never include another view. Waste of time.

George Hagenauer
Tue, 04/28/2020 - 10:17am

Having lived rural and within 3 miles of the largest software company between the coasts I can tell you that internet reception in rural areas even that close to a major city are often really minimal (the same problem exists often in inner city neighborhoods as they were wired last. A lot of these rural areas even on basic phone line communication lag way behind urban areas. When we left in 2017 we had finally moved from dial up to better internet because we are nearer to the city. Our access until metronet came in in Ypsilanti was bad but back where we used to live they were getting 10% of what we had. When we moved there in 1990 they had just gotten rid of party lines - and this was just outside Madison Wisconsin not the upper peninsula. Our internet system is based on markets having the money to pay and thus large chunks of the country lag because either they are a high cost to install market or the people lack the money to pay for basic intenet. And republican governors like Scott Walker often sent back federal money to improve local rural systems because of lobbying by internet companies that did not want public competition in spite of the fact the areas were not being served by any private company with non dial up internet. Folks in the cities don't understand the realities of the country and vice versa. Income levels are really low through most of the rural communities. When I worked on health care reform there were rural counties with more people on publicly funded health care in many rural communities than were on publicly funded health care in inner city Milwaukee. Satellite in many of these communities is not affordable.

Tue, 04/28/2020 - 8:23pm

Re: internet providers.
Go back a few years when cities and other groups like Oakland county were attempting to set up their own internet networks. Then along came the large corporations who told congress that they could and would do the job. End of small players and rural america is still waiting for those large providers to fulfill their promise. Congress failed us again.

Tue, 04/28/2020 - 10:03am

Barry then don't read them. Engler raised the sale tax to 6% that would generate more money like the Lotto would for education. REALLY? Schools are not funded equally and the Bond issue has become the means of survival for many districts. When you start a teacher at $34,000 it is hard to attract the best. I know they only work 9 months so they can as always get a summer job. Education is our best answer but you would not know it by the funding. Love to hear from you. R.L.

George Hagenauer
Tue, 04/28/2020 - 10:26am

Another issue that no one is talking about is that the attack by Trump and others on the post office will have a devastating effect not only on a wide range of small businesses that sell on the net but especially on rural America where essentially the post office is the only option. When Trump complains about Amazon and others sending packages the last mile for delivery via the post office - he is talking about rural delivery routes. Essentially he is arguing for a rural surcharge on postal deliveries to these areas (which could be done by adding a rural number to the front of the zip code- census tracts pretty much can be analyzed by population density) That would be a major cost increase to rural America where paying bills by the internet is usually not an option. And yes these are the areas most likely to vote Republican. What is needed instead is a subsidy that makes rural postal service viable or a reduction of the bizarre formula currently used to fund post office pensions. Covid 19 has cost the post office a lot but the cost of rural delivery is beyond that . The country was founded on having a post office that unified all of us - like all aspects of commonality in our society , it is under attack by those who only see profits not patriotism.