Cascade resident Becky Olson wants Michiganders to 'decline to sign' the Let MI Kids Learn petition.
Cascade resident Becky Olson wants Michiganders to 'decline to sign' the Let MI Kids Learn petition.

An investment in Michigan public education is an investment in Michigan overall. This investment in our public schools helps to attract talent, support industry, and boost real estate values.

By Becky Olson

CASCADE, Mich.—After touring the beautiful private religious school in our urban Chicago neighborhood, my husband and I sat at the dining room table where we assessed our family’s crossroads.

Would we subscribe to the culture-rich big city lifestyle, swallow the hefty property taxes and “double pay” to enroll our firstborn in a reputable private school? Would we gamble on the local public elementary with mediocre but improving ratings? Or could we try to achieve the best of both worlds by relocating to a public school district with a proven history and save the money?

With various considerations, lists, and pamphlets spread across the house, my husband presented an idea – relocating to Grand Rapids. Not only would its booming medical community support his professional move and help anchor us, but he also heard great things about the area’s schools while growing up near East Lansing.

It came down to having to make money-related sacrifices to cover the tuition on top of property taxes that we already had to annually attempt to negotiate down based on area “comps” – a common practice in Chicago.

While my husband focused on the job hunt, I began researching school districts. Throughout Kent County there were so many strong options that our initial net was cast quite wide. Fortunately, our realtor pointed me to Forest Hills Public Schools.

That first year, I still couldn’t believe how the public school district we chose exceeded what I thought I might gain from that private school. The online ratings were near perfect. The “extras” beyond reading, writing and arithmetic – including after care – are built for the whole child. The level of fellow parent involvement is downright competitive.

The parental contributions are a wonderful bonus, but this still doesn’t cover the growing needs of our students, educators, and facilities.

Additionally, the privilege in this ability for families to lend a physical or financial hand is not lost on me and sadly, there are too many districts across the state that are critically underfunded without any remedy – and it’s affecting their ability to thrive.

Overall, I am exceptionally pleased with the choice we made to relocate to Michigan, but the politization of our public education and threat of further defunding through the Let Mi Kids Learn Student Opportunity Scholarships threatens why we made the move for our kids’ education.

With just 8% of eligible state voter signatures, the proposal will advance to a GOP-led legislature to bypass the Governor’s veto and take $500 million from Michigan schools in the first year. The greatest beneficiary of this proposal are corporations seeking tax credits.

I’m already observing multiple Go Fund Me’s in our district to help send students off to state and national-level competitions for the extras they’ve excelled in, such as robotics or Odyssey of the Mind events. On an everyday level, teachers are asking for donations of Post-It notes and classroom books.

Amid the largest mental health crisis of our generation, we do not have enough professionals to help students navigate issues that may be holding them back from focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic.

We have a Superintendent who has already had to step up and speak out against a reduction in funding – and that was years before the Let Mi Kids Learn proposal entered the scene.

And what on earth will the dozens of other school districts do throughout Michigan that are not only unable to purchase supplies but also juggling freezing classrooms, moldy ceiling tiles and unpotable water?

I’m not alone in this worry. Many of us fighting to protect the integrity of public education in our little corner of Michigan share my story. My neighbor, Megan Jarosh says, “My husband graduated from Forest Hills and part of my ‘agreement’ to move back to Michigan from out of state was that we had to buy a house in the Forest Hills district because FHPS is the best. Here we are and we couldn’t be happier, but it saddens me to experience the attacks against our public schools and the defunding campaign behind them.”

An investment in Michigan public education is an investment in Michigan overall. This investment in our public schools helps to attract talent, support industry, and boost real estate values.

An under-funded education system risks the futures many of us planned our lives around. What does taking away $3.8 billion in five years from Michigan schools say? I didn’t invest in Michigan personally only to sit through unwarranted politically charged attacks on our award-winning district and risk its funding.  

The 90 percent of students who attend our public schools and the families behind them deserve better than this current climate. They deserve a chance at the brightest future possible and they deserve our collective investment.