COVID Parents Seek Education Alternatives

COVID Parents Seek Education Alternatives
Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

COVID-19 is rousing many parents and educators to conclude schools must reinvent how they educate children. It’s also motivating families to seek alternatives to their children’s current schools and inspiring entrepreneurs to create new enterprises that respond to this situation.

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Mercifully, school choice legislation enacted in nearly every state over the last 30 years is facilitating this process, spurring a host of educational innovations and inventions. And some Governors are using their state’s new COVID-19 federal dollars to expand parent choice and support novel education programs. 

A recent poll by Echelon Insights for the National Parents Union found that 63% of public school parents—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 school year.” Add 19% who are “undecided” and it’s 40% of public-school parents who are looking at alternatives.

What alternatives are they considering? Some are newer innovations like micro-schools and family PODS. Others are familiar—homeschooling, charter schools, and private schools—with new twists. The creativity and entrepreneurship involved is characteristically American and impressive, even if driven by urgency and exasperation.

Finding Alternatives

Here’s a snapshot of what’s emerging.   

Micro-schools reinvent the one-room schoolhouse. They are mixed-age groupings of 15 students or less and meet in homes, churches, community centers, or workspaces. They employcutting edge technology with teachers—or other learning guides—using different instructional approaches, including place-based and experiential learning.
Some are private, charging tuition—though several states allot families public dollars for expenses. Others are tuition free public schools.

Prenda is an Arizona-based national network of micro-schools, growing from 7 students in one neighborhood in 2018 to over 200 schools. Its website traffic increased 737% in June compared to June 2019.

• Another innovation is Parent Organized Discovery Sites—or PODS. These, typically, engage three to six families, together employing one teacher for their kids. Alternatively, parents teach, hiring a college student or other “grown-up” to assist. Some PODs provide scholarships for low income families.

Pandemic PODS combine tutoring and childcare so students socialize and pursue academics with friends. A Facebook post documents how “within 48 hours…thousands of parents [created] Facebook groups to form…PODS.” The San Francisco school district will open 40 district created PODS in libraries and community centers this school year. In Columbus, Ohio the YMCA is offering learning pods for students ages five to 16 who are attending school virtually. Students can be dropped off as early as 6 a.m., with learning sessions beginning at 8 a.m.

• Homeschooling is an established alternative to traditional public schools, with parents overseeing their child’s education. It includes home instruction, often making use of on-line curricula, with families frequently coming together for extracurricular activities. Because today there are many sources of curriculum that home schools draw upon, parents don’t have to create their own nor do much instruction. Homeschool filings in Nebraska are up 21% as of late July. In Vermont, they’ve increased by about 75% over the same time in 2019.

National Home School Association Executive Director J. Allen Weston has been inundated with calls for homeschooling information. He estimates by the end of the 2020-2021 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.   

• 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.”
Funding Alternatives

Today, 29 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 Prenda working with charter schools to provide tuition free micro-schools. 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 29 different publicly funded scholarships—or vouchers—to pay private school tuition and fees. Another 18 have 23 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 44 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.

New enterprises are also being created. SitterStream is a startup established 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. Amazon is one of their corporate clients. 

Transportant, a high-tech school bus company, makes “school buses as smart as your phone.” With the pandemic, it began working with school districts to make buses rolling Wi-Fi hotspots. They now provide high speed internet services for an entire street or apartment building to students who did not have internet access.   

States are also providing new forms of financial support for families exercising school choice during the pandemic. The federal CARES Act provides discretionary funds for governors to support new education programs. This, too, has fostered creativity and enterprise.

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 access online content with a teacher; a $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 and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire announced similar programs for low income families wanting to enroll their child in a private school. 

COVID-19 has turned school openings in fall 2020 into disarray. But creative and determined parents, policy leaders, and entrepreneurs are responding with renewed enterprise, impressive innovations, and creative alternatives so learning can continue.

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