“Back-to-school” stories this year in the United States focused mainly on the pandemic’s toll on students and families, remedies for those difficulties, and unprecedented federal dollars—around $190 billion and counting—going to the current K-12 system for people and programs to remedy those difficulties.
This focus overlooks another fascinating back-to-school story: how so many parents, since the start of the pandemic, sought new options for their children outside the traditional K-12 system—alternatives like homeschooling, small learning pods, and micro-schools. In doing so, they worked with like-minded civic entrepreneurs to evade the current K-12 system and engage in permissionless innovation, creating new organizations or expanding existing ones to meet this new demand.
These two stories reflect two different ways that individuals and organizations mobilized to respond to the pandemic, with the second story suggesting a new and promising path forward for K-12 education that is parent-directed, student-centered, and pluralistic, offering more educational and support options to families.
Unbundling Schooling and New Alternatives
Both stories emerge from the pandemic shock to our way of doing school, unbundling the familiar division of responsibilities between home, school, and community organizations. Parents were challenged to rebundle school services to meet their child’s needs. As longtime U.S. political analyst and pollster Frank Luntz of FIL, Inc. commented after surveying 1,000 public and private school parents on the pandemic’s effect: “Never in my lifetime have so many parents been so eager for so much education change.”
Since the pandemic’s start, 17.5 percent of parents have changed their child’s school. Thirteen percent also enrolled their child in small learning groups outside of a core school. Overall, 2.6 million students left district and private schools for charter schools, homeschooling, micro-schools, and other new options.
A five-point surge to 10 percent of parents said their child would be homeschooled for the 2020 school year. U.S. Census data support this uptick, estimating homeschool enrollment increased from 5.4 to 11.1 percent of households.
This homeschooling surge placed new demands on well-known homeschooling organizations like Classical Academic Press which reported that curriculum sales to homeschooling families increased 50 percent after the pandemic began. Additionally, enrollment in its online Academy rose by 100 percent. National Home School Association Executive Director J. Allen Weston was inundated with calls for homeschooling information, as information requests increased from five to 20 per day to more than 3,400.
The greatest increase was among African-American families, up fivefold from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent. “Covid-19 was [a] publicist for homeschooling,” says Khadija Ali-Coleman. In April 2020, Coleman, along with Cheryl Fields-Smith co-founded Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars to meet the growing need for information on homeschooling, especially among African-American families.
Overall, parents developed a more favorable view of homeschooling. In April 2021, 64 percent said they hold “somewhat” or “much more favorable views,” up from 55 percent in March.
Pods were another choice. Small groups of children gather, in person or virtually, for school or services like tutoring and childcare. Families pay for pods or receive them as employee benefits, with some offering scholarships for low-income families.
The pod demand catalyzed civic actors, community organizations, and others to respond. San Francisco Mayor London Breed opened 84 city-run pods. The Minneapolis, Minnesota African American Community Response Team created North Star Network of Zoom pods. The Cleveland, Ohio Boys and Girls Club created six pod centers, two with bilingual staff. JPMorgan Chase’s eligible employees received discounts on virtual tutors and pods, using Bright Horizons, its childcare provider.
Like all new endeavors, success varied. A New York suburban mother found near perfection: “Our teacher was magical. The other families were so supportive. The children formed an incredible bond. Learning skyrocketed . . .. [We experienced] some much-welcomed normalcy . . ..” Conversely, a Chicago mother’s pod disbanded: “It’s just so stressful. It was making me crazy.”
Micro-schools were a third alternative. They reinvent the one-room schoolhouse, enrolling fifteen students or fewer and employing one teacher who doesn’t need state certification. Parents can teach, with a college student or other adult assisting. School is in homes or public spaces like a library.
Prenda, an Arizona K-8 micro-schools network founded in 2013, opened with seven students and now has over 400 schools and 3,000 students in Arizona and Colorado. Schools are led by guides who undergo a background check, fingerprinting, and complete a certification process.
During the pandemic, Prenda created new affiliations like its partnership with Black Mothers Forum, providing its education program and guides training. The forum arranges school locations, child care, and additional services.
The Costs of Rebundling
Many parents made significant lifestyle changes. Nearly 30 percent worked different hours to accommodate pod participation. More than 20 percent reduced personal spending, took additional jobs, or used savings to pay for pods.
Foundations and their partners also provided support. For example, VELA Education Fund awarded microgrants up to $25,000 to students, families, and educators innovating outside the traditional system and up to $250,000 for programs expanding to more families. Prenda’s Colorado extension received an expansion grant.
Additionally, support came from tax dollars via school choice programs enacted over three decades. Today, 29 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) offer parents public dollars for expenses incurred when enrolling children in alternatives to traditional public schools. Nearly a third of the states considered bills to establish or expand these programs, with 14 states approving legislation.
Finally, the new pandemic-related federal dollars to K-12 education allowed policymakers to use these funds in imaginative ways. For example, Idaho Governor Brad Little created a $50 million Strong Families, Strong Students Initiative giving eligible families $1,500 per student (maximum of $3,500 per family) to purchase educational materials and services. New York state expanded charter schools facilities funding for those increasing enrollment during the pandemic. Others created similar programs.
What Might Stick?
This familiar American story of disruption and disaster spurring new capacity and innovation has three lessons for shaping the future educational landscape.
First, many parents don’t want a return to “the old normal.” FIL Inc. surveys find two of three parents (66 percent) rethinking “how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach . . ..” Only one-third believe schools “should get back to the way things were before . . . Covid-19.” More than half (53 percent) support education pods, with higher support from black and Hispanic parents (60 percent) than white parents (53 percent). Overall, only 14 percent oppose them.
There’s also significant parent interest in new ways of financing K-12 learning. Nearly eight in 10 (76 percent) want “education funding [to] follow the student to whichever school they or their parents choose.” Eighty percent want government to provide families with education savings accounts.
Second, parents want more K-12 system transparency. Surveys show parents scrutinizing how new federal pandemic dollars are used, holding states and districts accountable for results. For example, more than nine in 10 (91 percent) believe it’s “extremely” or “very important” for schools to be transparent on how funds are spent. Eight in 10 (80 percent) say it’s “extremely” or “very important” to have regular updates on how funding impacts student performance. This desire for transparency is consistent across racial, ethnic, income and demographic lines.
Third, some online learning will continue. The vast majority of parents prefer in-person learning. A RAND Corporation survey found more than eight in 10 (82 percent) plan on sending at least one child to in-person school full time this fall. Twelve percent were unsure and five percent don’t plan to have their children return to in-person schooling. Black and Hispanic parents are almost three times more likely than white parents to be unsure or don’t plan returning their child to in-person schooling.
An NPR/Ipsos poll found almost three in 10 (29 percent) likely to stick with remote learning indefinitely, including about half who are currently using it.
But even the in-person majority want to use technology in new ways, according to the Understanding America Study, finding substantial support for technology-related policies like remote tutoring for students, with 82 percent supporting or strongly supporting it.
Additionally, some school districts will continue or expand online learning. The nonprofit Khan Academy, for example, has provided free online education directly to teachers, parents, and students since 2006. Since the pandemic it’s expanded programs to school districts, now partnering with around 200 districts (up from nine pre-pandemic).
A RAND Corporation survey of leaders of more than 375 school districts and charter management organizations found one in five considering a remote school option when schools reopen.
In short, a robust coalition of parents, students, and K-12 stakeholders don’t want to return to the “old normal.” Some changes are here to stay.
Two Stories and Approaches to Mobilization
The first back-to-school story that focuses on the system’s perils and responses to the pandemic includes the usual K-12 suspects—e.g., state departments of education, local school districts, school district superintendents, teachers unions, etc. They’re programmed to do what they usually do, especially in a time of crisis when they get more money from the usual revenue sources—state, federal, and local: preserve their vested interests. This centralized, mostly top-down, orderly K-12 mode of operating I call bureaucratic mobilization.
A Center for Reinventing Public Education says as much in its review of initial plans for K-12 federal COVID-19 emergency relief spending in 100 large and urban districts: “Districts appear to be doubling down on what they know: more time [on task for students], more staff, more capital spending.”
The second back-to-school story that focuses on the new schooling alternatives has some of the usual suspects, but includes many new faces—for example, parents, non-profit leaders, other concerned citizens, and community leaders—driven to do something different to achieve a common goal. These mostly outsiders choose freely to come together, acting as evasive entrepreneurs engaged in permissionless innovation to expand or develop new capabilities and capacities. No one waited for permission from the system to evade or exit it, taking it upon themselves to seek new ways of doing school for their children. To start, what they do is often messy and not well coordinated—if at all—with the traditional K-12 bureaucracy. This mostly bottom-up mode of operating I call civic mobilization.
A recent analysis by Bellwether Education partners provides some initial insight into one category of these civic actors, the parents of “the overlooked.” It estimates that parents of nearly one in five of the nation’s schoolchildren—10.8 million students—didn’t get what they wanted from their child’s school over the last 18 months. These young people and their parents are the overlooked.
These parents either moved their child to a new schooling option; chose not to enroll a child in formal schooling, making them missing from school; or were muted because they couldn’t access the educational setting they preferred. In short: Movers + Missing + Muted = The Overlooked. The overlooked didn’t wait for permission to seek something different. They took the initiative to search for existing organizations or create new ones to meet their needs.
While these two narratives about mobilizing organizations and stakeholders to respond to COVID-19 school shock aren’t mutually exclusive, they imply different directions when developing priorities and prescribing intervention points, remedies, and a pathway forward for K-12 schooling. This second story suggests a new and promising path forward for K-12 education that’s parent-directed, student-centered, and pluralistic, offering more educational choices and support programs to families and their children.
Civic Engagement for the Common Good
COVID-19 upset longstanding arrangements between home, school, and community institutions, while also catalyzing creative and determined evasive entrepreneurs to engage in permissionless innovation to rebundle schooling. This characteristically American creativity and entrepreneurship reflects a distinctive approach to mobilization and understanding of politics: local civic engagement supporting collective action for the common good.
This opportunity is not lost on K-12 leaders. Deborah Gist, the Tulsa, Oklahoma superintendent of schools, says: “None of us . . . ever wanted to go through this. [But] we have a chance now to make it something that will change teaching and learning forever for the better.”
Whether educators, parents, or concerned citizens, our best hope is that COVID-19 shock positions us for a new era in educational excellence where families more directly control their child’s education. One where they exercise their self-agency and are supported in making decisions about their children’s schooling. One that gives our children an effective education preparing them for opportunity and success.