Covid-19 is upending what parents think about America’s schools, motivating them to seek different ways to educate their children. It’s also inspiring enterprising individuals and imaginative policymakers to create new ways to support that parent demand for change. And together, though often working in uncoordinated ways, these parents, individuals, and policymakers are fostering an approach to change best characterized as “evasive entrepreneurship.”
This approach uses existing resources, especially technology, in inventive ways that work around the limits of current school systems to create and use new education services and products. These innovative methods meet the needs of today’s Covid-19 families and children, challenging existing K–12 systems to be more effective in the way it serves them.
Parents want something different
A July poll of public-school parents by Echelon for the National Parents Union found that two of three parents (63 percent)—regardless of income, race, and political affiliation—believe that in response to Covid-19, schools “should be focused on rethinking how we educate students.” Twenty-one percent “plan to send [their] child to a different school or homeschool...next year.” Add 19 percent who are undecided” and it’s two of five parents (40 percent) looking at alternatives.
An early August Gallup poll of parents overall shows that satisfaction with their child’s education dropped 10 percent from last year, while the number of parents saying they will withdraw their child from public school and teach them at home as homeschoolers doubled to 10 percent.
A late August poll by Civis, a data analytics firm, found almost two in five parents changed their plans for their children’s schooling for the 2020–21 school year. Nearly three of five of those moms and dads chose an online learning program, with the balance going almost equally to either a public or private school.
Finding alternative approaches
What alternatives are parents considering? Some of them are newer innovations like family PODS, including microschools. Others are familiar—homeschooling, charter schools, and private schools—with new twists. Here’s a snapshot of what this looks like.
Parent Organized Discovery Sites—or PODS—are a newer alternative parents are pursuing, typically falling into two categories. There are those serving families who withdraw their children from school and use PODS as a new form of schooling. And there are those serving families whose children are enrolled in a school’s online learning program but supplement this program with specific PODS services.
PODS are paid for in a variety of ways. For example, families can pay directly “out of pocket” or receive them as employee benefits. Some PODS provide scholarships for low-income families. Other approaches include using state or local tax dollars or support from nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.
PODS as a new form of schooling can be seen in the emergence of microschools, which reinvent the one room schoolhouse. They usually are groupings of fifteen students or less, engaging three to six families. They might employ one teacher or alternatively, parents teach, hiring a college student or other “grown-up” to assist.
Prenda is an Arizona based network of micro schools, growing from seven students in one neighborhood in 2018 to over 200 schools. Its website traffic increased 737 percent in June compared to June 2019.
PODS as a supplement to online learning can add services like tutoring, childcare, and afterschool programs so students socialize and pursue academics or extracurricular activities with friends. A variety of actors—governments, non-profits, parents, corporations, etc.—are starting these programs.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the city’s school district are opening and financially supporting PODS in libraries and community centers. This program will serve at least 6,000 K–6 high-need students who are using the school district’s online learning curriculum. Students will be in small socially distanced groups supervised by staff from community nonprofits.
In Columbus, Ohio the YMCA is offering PODS for students ages five to sixteen who are attending school virtually. Students can arrive as early as 6 a.m., with learning sessions starting at 8 a.m.
In Minnesota, the Minneapolis based African American Community Response Team is creating the North Star Network to establish community ZOOM learning PODS. They will supplement online learning offered by schools, providing a quiet learning space, technology, and tutors.
JPMorgan Chase offers discounts on virtual tutors and learning PODS for eligible employees that they access through its employer sponsored childcare provider, Bright Horizons. It’s also opening its fourteen childcare centers to offer employee children at no cost a place to do remote learning instruction with supervision.
Homeschooling is an established alternative to traditional public schools that has parents overseeing their child’s education. It includes home instruction, often using online curricula so parents don’t need to create their own nor do much instruction. Families frequently form small groups or cooperatives for extracurricular activities.
Homeschool filings in Nebraska are up 21 percent as of late July. In Vermont, they’ve increased about 75 percent over the same time in 2019. In North Carolina, so many parents filed notice on a government website of plans to homeschool that the website was temporality unable to accept applications.
National Home School Association Executive Director J. Allen Weston has been inundated with calls for homeschooling information. The organization received more than 3,400 information requests on a single day in July, up from between five and twenty per day. He estimates by the end of the 2020–21 school year, homeschooling enrollment will rise from around 4 million to as many as 10 million students.
Public charter schools are another option, coming in many forms, including online learning. More families are choosing virtual charters as “brick and mortar” schools remain closed or because they’re wary of sending kids into school buildings. Oklahoma’s Epic Charter Schools is a virtual school enrolling 38,026 students. It’s the largest school system in the state, surpassing Oklahoma City and Tulsa, adding up to 1,000 students a day. Students who enroll in Epic’s online learning program have access to a $1,000 “learning fund” to use for everything from karate lessons to art classes. The school manages the money and parents must choose from approved vendors.
Meanwhile. Florida Virtual School is a tuition-free school that works with public, private, charter, and homeschool families and school districts nationwide. It has seen an increase of 64,107 course requests in its Flex program since July 1, representing an increase of 93 percent. Full-time applications have increased by 5,738, or 177 percent, over the prior year since registration opened in March.
Private schools are another familiar option. They have the flexibility to do things differently than public schools, including smaller class size and lower teacher-student ratios. Such features are attractive to parents during the pandemic. Enrollment information so far is anecdotal. Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools relates that member schools have had “an influx of inquiries about admissions.”
Emily Glickman of New York City based Abacus Guide Educational Consulting helps families enroll children in private schools. Covid-19 has produced a surge of inquiries, leading her to expand student placement options, including residential schools in Florida, Los Angeles, Seattle, and elsewhere. Her clients “…perceive that private schools are in a better position to implement safety measures, [like] putting in a new ventilation system or doing a better job distancing the students.”
Enterprises supporting parents
SitterStream is a startup created at the beginning of the pandemic. It offers on-demand babysitting and tutoring to students, individually or in PODS. It has partnerships with small and large businesses who provide these services to employees, with Amazon one of their corporate clients.
Transportant, a high-tech school bus company, makes “school buses as smart as your phone.” With the onslaught of the pandemic, it began working with school districts to convert buses into rolling Wi-Fi hotspots. It now provides high speed internet services for an entire street or apartment building to students who lacked access.
iCode is a national computer science education franchise that offers onsite and virtual computer coding for young people. They now offer supervised, in-person, full-day or half-day remote online learning support at its locations to help working parents manage school closures and online schooling for their children.
New financing approaches
Today, twenty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, offer parents many ways to use public dollars for expenses associated with enrolling children in alternatives to traditional public schools. The Covid-19 schooling crisis is an opportunity to deploy those financing options to support new forms of parent choice and wider access to extant forms.
Arizona offers a good example, as we see with Prenda working with charter schools to provide tuition free microschools. They also accept funds from Arizona’s Education Savings Accounts program (four other states have similar programs), enabling families to use public dollars for private school costs, tutoring, online learning, and other educational expenses.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico provide parents with twenty-nine different publicly funded scholarships—or vouchers—to pay private school tuition and fees. Another eighteen have twenty-three different full or partial tax credits giving individuals and businesses credits when donating to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships to low income families.
Individual tax credits and deductions in nine states allow parents to receive state income tax relief for educational expenses, including private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors, and transportation.
Public charter school laws exist in forty-four states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam. They have created more than 7,500 tuition-free schools of choice in many varieties and specialties.
During the pandemic, some states also are providing imaginative financial support for families seeking new education options for their children. For example, the federal CARES Act provides discretionary funds for governors to support innovative education programs and services, fostering creativity and enterprise in policymaking.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is using $30 million from the CARES Act’s Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to create a $12 million “Learn Anywhere Oklahoma” program so students can access online content with a teacher; an $8 million “Bridge the Gap” digital wallet program offering $1,500 to more than 5,000 low-income families to purchase curriculum content, tutoring, and technology; and a $10 million “Stay in School” fund providing up to $6,500 to over 1,500 low income families with a pandemic-related job loss so their children remain in their current private schools.
Governors Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, and Ron DeSantis of Florida announced similar programs for low-income families wanting to enroll their child in a private school.
How much of this will “stick” beyond the pandemic? The honest answer is the obvious one: No one knows. But yes, some will stick. The Civis survey referred to at the beginning of this essay reports that eight of ten (83.3 percent) K–12 parents who disenrolled children from school say they will reenroll them in their original school once it is safe to do so. This suggests some significant number of students will return to some version of the “old normal.” So the long-term effect becomes a question of magnitude: How much will stick and what effect will that have over the long term?
It’s taken nearly forty years, more or less, going back to a Nation At Risk—or thirty years, going back to the nation’s first school choice program in Milwaukee—for us to have created our present education reform framework that allows us today to undertake many of these alternatives that parents are now pursuing.
Covid-19 has thrown K–12 schooling into disarray. But is has also catalyzed creative and determined parents, innovators, and policy leaders to respond as evasive entrepreneurs. The creativity and entrepreneurship involved is characteristically American and impressive, even if driven by urgency and exasperation. These entrepreneurs are charging ahead, not waiting for permission to create impressive innovations and alternatives to the current K–12 system so learning can continue.