How COVID-19 could force lawmakers ⁠t⁠o broaden K-12 school cho⁠i⁠ce

By: The James Madison Institute / 2020



By: William Mattox

December 20, 2020

If Texas legislators do not soon embrace new approaches to K-12 education, Texas could easily fall further behind its Sun Belt rivals in attracting education-minded newcomers to the state. And COVID-19 would be partly to blame.

When I speak of new or unusual education approaches in K-12, I’m not referring to forms of education that lack merit. Or that fail to produce excellence. Quite the contrary. I’m referring instead to innovative forms of education being discovered during the pandemic by a growing number of highly competent parents around the country.

“COVID-19 has created a strange natural experiment in American education,” writes Emma Green in The Atlantic. Many families, frustrated by the public school system’s often inept response to the pandemic, have resorted to home schooling, pod learning, hybrid arrangements, micro schooling, and other forms of DIY education.

For some families, this has been a stopgap effort, a way to make the most of a difficult situation until the pandemic comes to an end. But for other parents, COVID’s disruption in traditional schooling patterns has created an unexpected opportunity to reimagine how they want their children to be educated.

Consequently, many families formerly committed to conventional public schooling are “now thinking about leaving it for good,” Green writes. A recent poll by the National Parents Union found that only one-third of all parents (32%) want schools to return to their former practices, unchanged by the pandemic.

Data are not yet available on the number of families that shifted to home schooling this year, but a Gallup poll published in August showed the percentage of K-12 parents who said they intended to do so this school year doubled to 10%.

None of this surprises Jim and Linda Werner, the founders of an Orlando “hybrid” school that specializes in offering personalized learning opportunities for more than 700 students. More than 30 years ago, the Werners began offering fee-based individual courses to serve families looking for a Goldilocks option between all-day-every-day conventional schooling and go-it-alone home schooling.

Demand for the Werners’ ever-widening array of courses has grown steadily over time, especially as Florida has become a national leader in embracing all sorts of schooling options. (Nearly half of all Florida students now attend something other than their designated public school.)

Interestingly, the Werners grew their school course-by-course, not grade-by-grade. Because they weren’t building an all-day-every-day school, they didn’t worry about trying to duplicate the often elaborate offerings of existing schools. They simply sought to fill needs in their community. So, if a group of home schooling families needed someone with expertise to teach high school physics, the Werners found a qualified instructor and offered the course.

Now, it would be easy to pooh-pooh all this by noting that the number of families looking for unbundled courses at any given time is only a fraction of the overall K-12 population. But the beauty of the Werners’ a la carte strategy is that it encourages people to think about education in new ways.

And when one begins to think in micro, individual student terms, rather than in macro, systemwide terms, all sorts of interesting and far-reaching possibilities arise. Especially in our digital age when highly effective online resources like the Khan Academy make it possible for students to learn in ways that would’ve been unimaginable a generation or two ago.

The folks behind Prenda microschools in Arizona know all about these new possibilities. Their education model bears a strong resemblance to the Acton Academy microschools that Laura and Jeff Sandefer started in Austin nearly a decade ago. Typically, Prenda brings together five to 10 students for project-based learning under the tutelage of a well-trained guide. As such, Prenda microschools are ideally suited for the COVID world of small group gatherings — and their rapidly increasing enrollment numbers show it.

Importantly, Arizona’s flexible K-12 policies have allowed many parents to access their student’s per-pupil funds to pay for Prenda’s in-person guides and distance learning services. This is significant, because growing interest in private, pod, micro, home and hybrid schooling isn’t simply fueling calls to reimagine how we do K-12 education. It’s also fueling calls to reimagine how we finance K-12 education.

“It’s time to start funding families, not the buildings that are meant to serve them,” writes Adam Peshek at Real Clear Education. “Governments should prioritize direct grants to families, education spending accounts, refundable tax credits and myriad other ways to get money into the hands of families so they can build an education that fits their needs.”

Real estate professor Bart Danielsen of North Carolina State University believes elected officials need to heed Peshek’s advice, not just for academic reasons, but also for economic reasons. He recommends every state and locality start viewing school choice as an economic development (and resident retention) issue, particularly since many COVID-inspired remote work opportunities are expected to be made permanent in the pandemic’s wake.

Danielsen’s research shows that the single greatest factor affecting housing decisions is not proximity to work, but proximity to desirable schooling. Thus, if state and local leaders fail to accommodate the growing number of families looking for alternatives to the sclerotic public school system, some education-minded parents with mobile jobs may pick up and move to states like Florida or Arizona.

In anticipation of this post-COVID world, forward-looking Texas policymakers ought to be thinking now about how to start the shift from funding schools to funding students. In particular, they may want to look at education spending account programs in Florida and Arizona, which allow eligible families to use per-pupil funds to pay for private tuition, books, online courses, tutorial services, curricula, testing and other learning resources.

Putting per-pupil dollars in the hands of parents may seem unusual to Texas education officials expecting a return to the old normal. But it will help facilitate greater innovation in schooling. It will lead to all sorts of new customized learning opportunities for students. And it just might give education-minded families further reason to stay in — or move to — the Lone Star State.

William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Florida. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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