Six months into the pandemic, the nation’s forced experiment in remote learning has resumed. While some places have seen improvements in the form of live instruction and greater consistency, many others are still dealing with the fallout from last spring against the backdrop of a racial divide between schools that are offering in-person instruction and those that aren’t. The problem isn’t so much a shortage of effort (though there’s plenty of that, too) as a lack of expertise among schools and districts. Simply put, our education system’s design is ill-suited to the unique quandaries posed by Covid-19.
District officials continue to ask parents for grace and patience, and many have continued to oblige, but what happens if current conditions persist into next year and beyond? It’s almost certain that the demand for choice will increase as a large number of parents keep their children at home. Talking about school choice in the way we typically do—best illustrated by the ceaseless tug-of-war on the test-based evidence for and against non-traditional models—misses the bigger and broader unanswered questions germane to today’s extraordinary circumstances: What do communities need schools to do? What kinds of choices do parents actually want? How do we ensure these choices are viable for students and families? And moving beyond “backpacks full of cash,” what are the practical implications for school choice?
To answer these questions, Rick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, asked me to offer some pragmatic solutions that policymakers could use at a time of emergency. My report, released last week by AEI, presents eight interesting ideas—some new, some old—to consider.
1. Hybrid homeschooling
Before the pandemic, this form of educational choice wouldn’t have been contemplated in a public school setting. Coined by Michael McShane, hybrid homeschooling calls for children to split their time between homeschool and a traditional environment. This could be three days at home and two days at school or any other combination that involves spending part of the day away from a school building. The key innovation here is that hybrid homeschooling blurs the lines of what we traditionally think of as school.
2. Employer-provided early childhood education
In his treatise on expanding the conservative education agenda, Hess put forth the novel idea of making early-childhood education (ECE) proximate to employment, an approach that would be a boon to both parents and children. Rather than duct-taping it onto the existing K–12 system as called for in most ECE proposals, Hess advocates expanding employer-provided ECE, which could be achieved by reforming the tax code in ways to make it cheaper and more attractive to prospective employees.
3. Open enrollment
Interdistrict choice laws, also known as open enrollment, allow families to choose schools beyond the ones assigned to them based on their places of residence. As states face the dual threat of an enrollment crisis this fall and the unpredictability of new coronavirus outbreaks, strengthening open enrollment laws could be one of the easier ways to put students and families more in the driver’s seat.
4. An education appraisal market
Although nine in ten parents believe their child is at or above grade level in reading and math, only about a third of students perform at grade level. To bridge this disconnect, the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke believes states should create a market for an accurate and real-time assessment of student skills. Using the independent appraisal process as a model, Burke argues that parents should be given the financial flexibility to participate in an education appraisal market.
5. Education savings accounts and Covid-19 refunds
Due to the poor performance of schools last spring, Burke has provocatively suggested that parents should get some of their money back. This would be incredibly difficult to do, but there is certainly something to be said about adopting such an approach prospectively. In all but six states, this would require enabling legislation.
6. Education savings accounts and homeschoolers
Education savings accounts, as currently configured, don’t do much for homeschoolers. Many have a litany of eligibility requirements or regulations that artificially constrain the supply of potential education providers, and aren’t as useful when all schools are closed. In the coronavirus era, states should consider expanding eligibility to all students in the state to both reflect the pandemic’s impact on all families and recognize that homeschooling has become more urban, secular, and socioeconomically diverse.
7. Homeschool enrichment
Nearly half of states have requirements that allow homeschooled students to participate equally in extracurricular and interscholastic activities such as band and sports. In the other half that don’t have equal access laws, the decision to grant access to school-based opportunities is often left to individual school districts and the whims of local school boards. In either scenario, parents can count on there being plenty of strings attached in the form of regulatory and financial hurdles. If states are genuinely concerned about the welfare of students being home educated, they should do more to reduce this type of friction.
8. Pandemic pods and microschools
Skeptics worry that pandemic pods are a dark sign of deepening inequities ahead. For every person who views these microschools as the worst manifestation of privilege and opportunity hoarding, others see rational actors who cannot reasonably be expected to resign themselves to the current state of affairs when they have the means to take action on behalf of their children. States and districts should watch this development closely and might do well to consider a formal mechanism for pod creation to increase their availability and accessibility.
The future of school choice rests in expanding the choice palette and blurring the lines of what schooling entails. More flexibility will be required to reinvigorate the choice movement—with the convenience of students and families at the forefront.
Setting the right tone with lawmakers will be important if choice advocates are serious about advancing any of these eight ideas. To quickly get to—and keep the focus on—solutions, making any new legislation time bound (e.g., including a sunset provision) could create additional space to provide greater flexibility to families while acknowledging the need to be adaptive to future challenges after Covid-19 recedes.
American schools have recovered from other calamities—including previous pandemics. Children show remarkable resilience when their interests are placed above all else. To get the most out of this coming school year, it won’t do to shoehorn the complexities created by Covid-19 into our normal policy frameworks. Our charge will be to reach deeply into our reserves to advance the current school choice debate beyond the zero-sum stalemate toward new solutions to the challenges of this moment.