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Wednesday, June 21, 2023

A Rural, Waldorf Microschool Gets Shut Down By State Regulators

“It was devastating for all of these children and families to suddenly close," said Ariel Maguire.

Children at Kulike Learning Garden; Photo: Ariel Maguire

Ariel Maguire gathered together with other moms in her rural area of the Big Island of Hawaii to create a child-centered educational solution for local families. It was late 2021 and the parents realized that nearly two years of pandemic policies had left their kids behind both academically and socially.

There weren’t a lot of child care or early-education options nearby. “The closest place to send our kids would be a little over an hour drive each way and it has a huge waitlist,” Maguire told me in a recent podcast interview. “We were all struggling because we’d been stuck at home with our kids without community for a couple of years and needed to get back to work.”

So Maguire and the other moms decided to build what they couldn’t find. They established their program, Kulike Learning Garden, as a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, as well as a private membership association, or PMA, that works legally like a social club to facilitate voluntary association within a cooperative community of shared roles and expectations. They hired an experienced Waldorf teacher, and opened their Waldorf-inspired, child-focused, nature-based microschool on a family farm in January 2022 with about 15 children, ages three to six. Parent volunteers shared in the teaching responsibilities.

Over the following months, the microschool, which cost families $600 a month, flourished. “The kids were all thriving,” said Maguire, an accountant and mom of four young girls. “The feedback we were getting was that the kids were doing so much better at home because of this new routine. A lot of their behaviors that we were experiencing during the pandemic had calmed down. The kids were having a blast.”

Then, in November 2022, officials from the Hawaii Department of Human Services showed up on the farm property. “They were very Men in Black style,” recalled Maguire. “They had glasses on, masks on, multiple cars. A representative from the Attorney General’s office was there, and they were interrogating us, really making us out to seem like we were doing something really wrong, but we truly felt that we weren’t.”

One week later, Maguire and the other parents got served with a $55,500 fine and a court date for operating as an “unlicensed preschool.” They tried to challenge the state regulators, but it seemed like an uphill battle. “Circuit court takes at least a year to get through, and so looking at the attorney costs of doing that and the time it would require of me, and meanwhile, I have these four children who I’m trying to educate and prepare for life. I just didn’t have the time or the money to do that,” said Maguire. So she and the other moms agreed to shut down their microschool and pay a $5,000 fine.

“It was devastating for all of these children and families to suddenly close at the end of December,” said Maguire. “Everybody is homeschooling right now because there’s really no other option. We have play dates and meet up at the beach or the market, and that’s really it.”

Maguire said other, similar programs are also now being shut down and fined by Hawaii regulators. One PMA microschool had supposedly tried to get licensed as a recognized preschool program, but state occupational licensing regulations requiring preschool teachers to have certain college degrees, certifications, and experience made that virtually impossible in their rural area. “We simply don’t have the population of people living here who have those degrees,” said Maguire.

Much of the current crisis around child care shortages, in Hawaii and elsewhere, is manufactured by regulators. Whether it’s occupational licensing requirements that limit the supply of these options, particularly in rural areas, or state child care regulations that prevent hyper-local, family-centered care solutions, these policies artificially create shortages where they otherwise wouldn’t exist. 

Maguire thinks that’s definitely the case on the Big Island. She says there wouldn’t be child care shortages in her area if individuals in local communities were able to create their own solutions without top-down state mandates. As the Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, once said, “the more the state ‘plans’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”

Despite the closure of Kulike Learning Garden and the battles with state regulators, Maguire is hopeful about a possible path forward. Buoyed by support from her local community of parents, she is exploring various options to be able to reopen and expand the program to school-age children. “Even though this was a big moment with a big fine and it was really devastating, it didn’t knock me down at all. It actually inspired me to keep moving,” said Maguire.

As unconventional learning models spread nationwide, it’s unfortunate but perhaps unsurprising that microschool founders and other education entrepreneurs are bumping up against outdated or burdensome regulations that can stymie the growth of individualized, innovative learning models. The good news is that there are now more organizations stepping up to help these entrepreneurial parents and teachers. 

Instead of exercising common sense, government agents use unnecessarily complicated rules that simply should not apply,” said Mike Donnelly, an experienced attorney and vice president of the yes. every kid. foundation. which provides legal advocacy services to support education entrepreneurs. “Regrettably, these often well-intentioned officials hurt kids and families by shutting down or slowing down people who are trying to help. If we are going to transform education and do what’s right for kids, we need to simplify and eliminate pointless red tape.”

Despite regulatory roadblocks, today’s education entrepreneurs are pushing ahead to build bottom-up learning solutions that prioritize each individual learner. My recently published case study profiles 35 of these intrepid founders in five cities across the US, but there are hundreds more, including Maguire who is paving the way for more learner-centered education options in Hawaii.

“I don’t love this about me, but I tend to be a little bit of a trailblazer,” said Maguire. “So I think that it all was sort of meant to happen the way that it did so that I could get this information out and start this conversation.” 

In this exciting time of education transformation, it’s the trailblazers whom we should applaud, emulate, and embolden.