Photo via Rep. Ryan Berman
Photo via Rep. Ryan Berman

One back-to-school proposal supported by Michigan Republicans like state Reps. Greg Markkanen and Ryan Berman would bring privatization to distance learning, leaving teachers in the lurch.

LANSING, MI — Teachers are ready to step up to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, but efforts to rise to the occasion have been hobbled by politics in Lansing. 

“If people would just get the (exploitive) out of our way, they would be amazed at what teachers are capable of doing online,” Kim Eberhard, a high school English teacher, told The ‘Gander. 

Instead, she explained, current proposals from Lansing Republicans lead to undermining teachers and micromanaging classrooms under the guise of returning students to schools responsibly. 

“We obviously want to make sure we are providing help to schools in this crisis,” said state Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth). “Unfortunately, rather than doing that, we’re taking up DeVos-style bills that vastly expand who can be a provider of an online course to literally any person.”

Included in the “Return to Learn” plan authored by Michigan’s legislative Republicans is a proposal to have private companies help facilitate e-learning solutions for the required distance learning days the plan mandates. Koleszar compared this to the way Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has used the pandemic to direct money toward school privatization. 

Private e-Learning Endangers Public Education

A combination of the bills in the package make it both easier for school districts to outsource their e-learning solutions (HB 5910) and for private companies to be authorized to provide those services (HB 5911), Democrats argue. And it fails to allocate resources to providing students what they need to participate in online learning. 

Money that could’ve been allocated to providing broadband access for students to engage in distance learning instead is directed toward this privatization effort, argued state Rep. Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Twp).

But privatization of e-learning hurts schools in other ways. 

“By hiring private, they can fire public school teachers,” said Eberhard, who teaches at East China School District in Michigan’s thumb. “Our district will have our own teachers run our distance teaching. If we hire a company to do our work, then all teachers are let go.”

READ MORE: Betsy DeVos Tried to Direct COVID Money Away From Public Schools. Michigan’s AG Sued Her for It.

Eberhard said that every step of the process privatized endangers teachers’ jobs, Eberhard explained. And while Eberhard’s Regional Education Service Agency is administering their own distance learning solutions, many districts won’t.  

“Some districts want to hire a private company rather than have their own teachers teach online,” she told The ‘Gander. “Why? Consistency, laziness on administration level … They wouldn’t be cutting corners, they would be throwing the whole lot out. Get rid of teachers and hire an online company to teach our students.”

And, she said, these proposals would empower them to take those kinds of steps. Lansing Republicans have framed this as a question of giving school districts options. 

Two Bad Choices

Those options were in-person instruction, which The ‘Gander reports poses significant dangers to the health and economy of the state, and easily privatized e-learning solutions. Efforts to promote public options, like public universities providing distance learning, were rejected by Republicans. 

“Whether a school district decides to continue with distance learning or return students safely to the classroom following consultation with their local health departments, I have supported legislation providing the resources needed for students and educators,” said state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp). “But the key word in all of this is choice – and I feel parents need to have choices at the local level as the school year approaches.”

UP NEXT: Republicans Didn’t Include ‘Head Start’ in COVID Relief Bill, Putting 1 Million Kids at Risk

He, and state Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock), who both served as architects of the Return to Learn plan, provided for their two major choices as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s own education plan, MI Safe Schools, asked districts to develop on their own a number of different potential operating plans for the fall tailored to how pervasive the virus is at any given time. The competing proposals make it hard on districts who need plans in place soon.

“The beginning of the school year is quickly approaching, and students, teachers and parents deserve some peace of mind about what their days will look like and that precautions will be taken to keep everyone healthy,” Markkanen, who authored one of the Return to Learn bills, said in a statement. “My top priority is making sure local schools have the resources they need to deliver a safe and high-quality education for every one of our kids and grandkids – regardless of whether learning takes place in the classroom or online.”

The resources provided by the Republican plan don’t include broadband to access online learning and address the digital divide in rural Michigan. They provided private e-learning platforms instead. And those platforms may not be as helpful to students, argues political economist Gordon Lafer.

“They pitch these offerings as stepping up to help out the country in a moment of crisis. But it’s also like coke dealers handing out free samples,” Lafer told the Institute for New Economic Thinking

Both Lafer and Eberhard explained that this is because privatization is the easy, “lazy” option for school districts to take in addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic. Rather than develop a plan, hire a private firm who has a plan prepared already. 

RELATED: How Reopening Michigan Schools Too Early Could Lead to More Statewide Closures

“The easiest thing, the laziest thing to do, is to just get some outside apps and put everybody on that,” said Lafer. “Well, that’s great for those technology companies and their investors. But it’s terrible for education, partly because so much of education depends on the personal relationship between teachers and students.”

Eberhard stressed that while some teachers wouldn’t be able to adapt well to new technology, the vast majority would, and would be able to maintain those relationships at a distance if given the opportunity. But, she fears, these plans cut that opportunity out. 

“We have so many constraints on us at every level, it’s extremely frustrating,” she said. “Micromanaging like we are something other than professionals. That is my interpretation when I hear the words ‘hiring private’ and it is right up the [Republican’s] alley.”