December 25, 2022
In the wake of COVID, a “new normal” in K-12 education is taking hold. Public school enrollment is down in most parts of the country. Homeschooling numbers remain well above their pre-pandemic levels (especially among African Americans). The same is true for virtual learning, where some innovative new programs using immersive technology are winning critical acclaim. And small, highly personalized learning communities — such as micro-schools, learning pods, and hybrid homeschools — are continuing to draw considerable interest from young families.
Many families are drawn to these emerging enterprises because they like smaller, more personalized environments. They want curriculum tailored to the individual child’s interests, needs and learning styles. And they appreciate the fact that their child can more easily get extra attention in certain subjects — while often gaining exposure to cutting-edge technology.
For example, the Florida-based Optima Foundation has produced the first-ever classical curriculum using immersive technology. It allows students, wearing virtual reality headsets, to be transported to ancient Rome to witness debates between leading philosophers. With immersive technology of this kind, it matters not whether the student is engaging educational content from a large classroom in Broward County or a small out-building in Glades County. As such, immersive technology helps fuel the growing “learn anywhere” movement.
Interestingly, an increasing number of educators share parents’ enthusiasm for “micro” options. They have rediscovered the joy of teaching, free from the often-stifling regulations of big school bureaucracies, by moving into the “micro” sector as education entrepreneurs. South Florida, in particular, has become a “large hub of education entrepreneurship,” according to scholar Kerry McDonald.
These alternative forms of education “are here to stay,” McDonald says, in large part because of their “educational diversity.”
“Today’s micro-schools,” she writes, “represent all ideological and political persuasions, embrace a variety of educational philosophies and approaches, and use a wide assortment of curriculum resources and learning tools, including, in some instances, standardized tests and traditional curriculum.” This diversity means today’s “micro” movement is “less apt to fade with changing cultural or political trends,” according to McDonald.
Speaking of diversity, many families are finding school choice to be the best solution to some of the divisive conflicts in K-12 education that have arisen in recent years. For example, during the fall of 2021, several public school districts sought to defy Florida’s prohibition on mask mandates in public schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis responded by offering Hope Scholarships to students harassed by local school officials over masks. But in a move that many national media outlets completely overlooked, DeSantis also authorized Hope Scholarship assistance for families uncomfortable with sending their children to mask-optional public schools.
As such, Florida gave all families the opportunity to enroll their child in a school that shared their masking preferences. Rather than perpetuating a high-stakes, zero-sum battle in which only one side could get its way, Florida found a way to accommodate the concerns of families with very different needs, preferences and convictions. The key to this accommodation? School choice.
In many ways, the emergence of a post-COVID “new normal” should not surprise anyone. Parents have long expressed broad support for school choice policies. And roughly four out of five parents now support flexible-use scholarships commonly known as Education Savings Accounts. With ESAs, families can patch together courses from multiple providers (including virtual programs) rather than relying on a single school to meet all of their children’s learning needs. As such, ESAs are particularly beneficial to families interested in smaller, more customized forms of education. And they should be made more widely available to families by Florida policymakers.
“What we’re hearing from parents loud and clear is they feel a greater sense of ownership over their child’s education,” says polling analyst Christian Lehr of Tyton Partners. “We must work hard to connect families with a broader set of learning opportunities and provide them the resources and tools necessary to take action.”