Introduction: Options Vs. Assignments
My neighbor recently opted out of “Zoom schooling.” In March 2021, after a year of remote schooling and a slow move to a hybrid classroom model, this mom was fed up with the low quality of education her daughter was receiving from the public school system. So, she decided to take advantage of other options. She unenrolled her child from the district school and registered her as a homeschooler, with plans for private school in the fall.
A couple of weeks later, another neighbor did the same thing, although she isn’t sure what the fall will look like for her child’s learning.
These aren’t just anecdotes. They are part of a larger trend. Over the past year, all across the country, “pandemic schooling” has driven concerned parents to rediscover something long-neglected in the domain of education: the freedom to choose among options.
As parents, options are incredibly important to us. During pregnancy and birth, we take great care to choose the right doctor and/or midwife, the right birthing environment, and which medical procedures we will undergo. When our children are infants, we are highly selective about how and what to feed them, where they sleep, what clothes they wear, what sunscreen to buy, and so on. As they grow, we offer them a variety of toys and expose them to diverse experiences—choosing from an abundance of options: camps, lessons, play groups, etc. We also learn from each other. We find parenting circles or social media groups that fit our parenting style, and buy books or read articles that help us to fine-tune our parenting philosophy. We explore and experiment.
This is how it works in a free society with a free market. We all have unique preferences and perspectives. We all have different wants and needs. The marketplace meets these diverse desires in extraordinary ways, offering us a proliferation of options among goods and services.
Yet, when it comes to education, options are suddenly considered inappropriate. Instead, we have a one-size-fits-all government system of compulsory schooling. Parents make one key choice: where their family lives. And based on that, almost everything else about their children’s education is decided for them.
Instead of options, they are given assignments.
The child is assigned to a certain school by district officials, to a certain classroom by school administrators, and to certain schoolwork by school teachers, often based on a centralized standard curriculum.
By and large, parents have acquiesced to this system in spite of its lack of options. But many have become so dissatisfied, that they, like my neighbors, have opted out of the compulsory schooling system entirely.
This “opt-out” trend has grown as the quality of education provided by the public school system has worsened over the decades. And in the past year, it has rapidly accelerated in the wake of COVID.
For many parents, “pandemic schooling” has laid bare what a raw deal they are getting with “free” government-provided education for their children. The public school system’s response to the disease has been a disaster of its own. And many parents are finding the system’s “back-to-school” plans for the fall to be murky and grim.
Given this backdrop, more parents than ever are looking for alternatives to a compulsory schooling system that has failed their children one too many times. If you are one of those curious parents, this guide is for you.
In this ebook, you will get a closer look at the current state of American government schooling at the K-12 level, and the growing range of alternatives to it. This system was failing many students and families long before COVID-19 hit, and its flaws have been amplified over the past year. As parents have gained a front-row seat to their children’s classrooms through remote learning, many of them are not impressed. A dumbed-down curriculum, lots of busy work, disrespect of each child’s individuality and creativity, and a growing emphasis on identity politics and “wokeness” have prompted parents to consider other learning models.
Indeed, school shutdowns and related pandemic policies have fundamentally transformed education for the first time since compulsory schooling began in the mid-nineteenth century. Schooling may never look the same again—and that could be a positive change for many learners and their families. This ebook briefly traces the origins of our current compulsory schooling model and shows how the pandemic response has created opportunities for disruptive innovation in education that will likely be long-lasting. Many of these new learning models challenge an outdated industrial system of schooling with new prototypes and methods that are more relevant for 21st-century learners.
From exploring innovative, low-cost private schools and charter schools, to identifying successful virtual learning programs, to discovering an assortment of homeschooling approaches, this ebook shares a wide range of education choices that can be both meaningful and accessible. It also looks specifically at learning opportunities for teens to help them take charge of their own success, and encourages parents to be entrepreneurial by creating and expanding free-market schooling alternatives.
With the next school year looking as uncertain as the last, it’s never been a better time to consider the surprisingly rich range of options beyond what the compulsory schooling system has assigned to you and your child.
Chapter 1: The Current Woeful State of Government Schooling
My two neighbors who unenrolled their children from separate district schools this spring in favor of independent homeschooling are not alone. The 2020/2021 academic year has been characterized by plummeting public school enrollment, as parents delayed kindergarten enrollment for their young children, opted for private schools that have been more likely to reopen for in-person schooling than district schools, or chose independent homeschooling.
According to new data from the US Census Bureau, more than 11 percent of US K-12 students are currently being homeschooled. This represents a tripling of the homeschooling rate from pre-pandemic levels, according to federal data. In Massachusetts, where I live, the independent homeschooling rate rose from 1.5 percent in the spring of 2020 to 12.1 percent in the fall of 2020. These are parents who officially unenrolled their children from a school.
Overall public kindergarten enrollment dropped 16 percent nationwide this academic year, and public school enrollment was down at least two percent across the country. Some states, such as New Hampshire and Mississippi, experienced particularly large public school enrollment drops this year.
The new academic year looks eerily similar to the old. Some school districts say they will continue to plan for remote district schooling and hybrid options, and will prepare for periodic closures in case of community-wide or school-based coronavirus outbreaks. Other districts are continuing with their COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming school year, including social distancing and masking, no cafeteria use, and canceled or limited extracurricular and sports activities. These ongoing restrictions, along with the unpredictability of in-person classroom learning, are prompting parents to think differently about back-to-school time.
For instance, New York City reported that public kindergarten enrollment applications are down 12 percent for the fall of 2021, compared to nine percent last year. Some of that is surely due to families leaving New York City during its strict pandemic response, and migrating to areas of the country with open schools. But some of the enrollment drop is likely related to parents choosing different learning options.
A Zoomed Lens Into Classroom Learning
School shutdowns and district Zoom schooling offered parents a peek into their children’s classrooms in unprecedented ways. Some of what they saw was jarring. One mother told me she was shocked to discover through her daughter’s remote schooling that the class was currently reading a book that her daughter had read on her own two years earlier. Other parts of the curriculum were equally disappointing.
Parents were awakened to the prevalence of political indoctrination in the instruction of their children. For instance, a Philadelphia public school teacher tweeted last year worrying that “conservative parents” exposed to their children’s Zoom schooling might hinder his ability to shape the socio-political views of their children. He wrote:
And while “conservative” parents are my chief concern—I know that the damage can come from the left too. If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kid’s racism or homophobia or transphobia—how much do we want their classmates’ parents piling on?
Much of this agenda trickles from the top. The nation’s largest teachers unions have long been deeply connected to the Democratic Party and left-wing ideology, and this political affiliation became increasingly apparent to parents during school closures.
Teacher Union Influence
According to EducationNext, the nation’s two top teachers unions have been among the leading financial contributors to national elections since 1990: “They have forged an alliance with the Democratic Party, which receives the vast majority of their hard-money campaign contributions as well as in-kind contributions for get-out-the-vote operations.” Teachers union members comprise 10 percent of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, where they represent “the single largest organizational bloc of Democratic Party activists.”
Fortunately, the 2018 US Supreme Court’s Janus decision freed non-members of public sector unions from being forced to contribute union dues, allowing government employees to avoid supporting political organizations and platforms with which they may disagree. Despite this win, the influence of teachers unions on progressive policy across the country continues unabated.
At their July 2020 convention, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation’s second-largest teachers union, voted almost unanimously to endorse Joe Biden’s presidential bid. In her convention speech, AFT president Randi Weingarten made no secret of the far-left policies and politics her union and its members endorse. She said:
Imagine a world with: universal pre-K; debt forgiveness for educators; triple Title I funding; expanded community schools; supports for kids with special needs; high-stakes testing thrown out the window; charter school accountability; public colleges and universities tuition-free for families who earn less than $125,000. That’s not from an AFT resolution. That’s straight from the Democratic Party platform, born out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations we helped draft.
Additionally, the AFT endorsed other progressive policies at their convention that are unrelated to education, such as the Green New Deal, “affordable housing,” and “universal healthcare.” For many parents of the approximately 50 million K-12 public school students in the US, these policies likely go against their personal and political beliefs and they should be concerned that this leftist ideology is creeping into their child’s classroom.
Parents and taxpayers should also be concerned if teachers unions had overwhelmingly right-wing ideas and influence as well, which is why limiting the overall power of public-sector unions is so crucial.
It was teachers unions, more than any other factor, that determined whether or not schools reopened for in-person learning over the past year. In their March 2021 paper in Social Science Quarterly, Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis concluded:
Our findings that school closures are uncorrelated with the actual incidence of the virus, but are rather strongly associated with unionization, implies that the decision to close schools has been a political—not scientific—decision.
Brown University researchers reached a similar conclusion last fall. “Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making,” they wrote. More parents may be discovering just how political school reopening plans actually are.
In July 2020, for example, the Los Angeles teachers union released a report detailing the conditions they identified for a safe reopening of schools. This document went far beyond requesting social distancing plans and personal protective equipment to an agenda that eclipsed both COVID-19 and educational matters. Specifically, it laid out policy requirements for school reopening, including passing Medicare for All at the federal level, raising state taxes, defunding the police, and imposing a moratorium on charter schools.
Beyond COVID-19, teachers unions are also increasingly weighing in on social and cultural issues that have nothing to do with education, in sometimes threatening ways. Particularly disturbing was a tweet by the Chicago Teachers Union supporting protesters who erected a mock guillotine outside of Amazon.com founder, Jeff Bezos’s, house. The tweet read:
We are completely frightened by, completely impressed by and completely in support of wherever this is headed. #Solidarity
In California, state lawmakers passed a bill last fall to mandate the country’s first ethnic studies graduation requirement, a move that was actively embraced by the California Teachers Union. California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, but an ethnic studies curriculum was approved by the state’s education department in February, prioritizing study of four ethnic groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Latino Americans, and Native Americans. The Wall Street Journal editorial board chimed in on the California ethnic studies program last year. “This is ugly stuff, a force-feeding to teenagers of the anti-liberal theories that have been percolating in campus critical studies departments for decades,” they wrote in September 2020. “Enforced identity politics and ‘intersectionality’ are on their way to replacing civic nationalism as America’s creed.”
Critical Race Theory in K-12 Classrooms
Identity politics, or focusing on group identity over individuality, has indeed reached a fervor in both public and private schools over the past year. Known more formally as Critical Race Theory, this “woke” ideology of group affiliation is infiltrating children’s classrooms across the country.
We should absolutely celebrate diversity, show tolerance for difference, and acknowledge the deeply racist parts of American history, including government-sponsored racism through Jim Crow laws and “redlining” in federal housing policy. We should also recognize that racism still exists today.
But Critical Race Theory seeks to view all social and cultural issues through the lens of race and racial identity, and to cast all human relations in terms of power structures related to that identity. It is a collectivist notion that puts the group above the individual and pigeonholes people as either oppressor or oppressed.
Indeed, the history of Critical Race Theory is rooted in Marxist thought and began to gain traction in academic circles in the early to mid-20th century through the “Frankfurt School” before spilling over into the broader culture near the turn of the millennium.
Last fall, FEE’s Dan Sanchez, Tyler Brandt, and Brad Polumbo wrote an excellent, in-depth explainer article on Critical Race Theory (CRT), discussing how it threatened the important progress made by the Civil Rights Movement. “The pre-CRT Civil Rights Movement had emphasized equal rights and treating people as individuals, as opposed to as members of a racial collective,” they wrote. “In contrast, CRT dwells on inequalities of outcome, which it generally attributes to racial power structures.”
They argued that the Civil Rights Movement was in line with the broader classical liberal movement, whose harmony-oriented vision stands in stark contrast against the Marxian conflict-oriented view of Critical Race Theory.
“The classical liberal ‘harmony doctrine,’” they explained,
was deeply influential in the movements to abolish all forms of inequality under the law: from feudal serfdom, to race-based slavery, to Jim Crow. But, with the rise of Critical Race Theory, the cause of racial justice became more influenced by the fixations on conflict, discord, and domination that CRT inherited from Marxism. Social life was predominantly cast as a zero-sum struggle between collectives: capital vs. labor for Marxism, whites vs. people of color for CRT.
The antidote to this Marxist framework is to prioritize individualism over collectivism, in both schools and society more broadly. It’s to focus on the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin, as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged.
Critical Race Theory does the opposite. “‘Antiracist’ training sounds righteous, but it is the opposite of truth in advertising,” math teacher Paul Rossi wrote in an April letter objecting to the adoption of Critical Race Theory at his elite private school in Manhattan. “It requires teachers like myself to treat students differently on the basis of race.”
Rossi sounded the alarm on the growing influence of critical race theory in classrooms today, and he was removed from his teaching duties as a consequence. Around the same time, Andrew Gutmann, a father of a child at the Brearley School, another posh private school in New York City, also exposed the racist and divisive underpinnings of supposedly “anti-racist” training and curriculum in his daughter’s school and decided not to re-enroll her there this fall. Gutmann wrote:
If the administration was genuinely serious about “diversity,” it would not insist on the indoctrination of its students, and their families, to a single mindset, most reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Instead, the school would foster an environment of intellectual openness and freedom of thought.
But it’s not just fancy private schools that are contending with “wokeism.” This ideology is seeping into public school classrooms as well, which is even more problematic for many families who may feel stuck at their child’s mandatory district school.
In February, Illinois legislators voted in favor of enacting new “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards” in the state’s teacher education programs. Beginning in October, all Illinois teacher training programs must start to reflect the new standards that focus on “systems of oppression,” with teacher trainees required to “understand that there are systems in our society that create and reinforce inequities, thereby creating oppressive conditions.”
Under the new standards, all teachers-in-training are also expected to “explore their own intersecting identities,” “recognize how their identity. . . affects their perspectives and beliefs,” “emphasize and connect with students about their identities,” and become “aware of the effects of power and privilege and the need for social advocacy and social action to better empower diverse students and communities.”
Even the Chicago Tribune editorial board warned against the passage of these standards in the days preceding the legislative session, noting that
while the rule-writers removed the politically charged word ‘progressive’ from their proposal, there’s no doubt these are politically progressive concepts as we know them in our current national dialogue. If the rules were tilting more toward traditional concepts of teaching, if the word ‘conservative’ were peppered throughout the rules, you can imagine the uproar.
In the name of equity, education officials in Virginia have proposed an initiative that may alter or eliminate accelerated mathematics courses before the 11th grade. In California, they are doing the same thing. This effort comes on the heels of an influential letter by a group of educators calling for an overall transformation of math education in the US that emphasizes “dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by making visible the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture with respect to math.”
Princeton mathematics professor Sergiu Klainerman wrote a guest post on the topic at journalist Bari Weiss’s website. He says: “Attempts to ‘deconstruct’ mathematics, deny its objectivity, accuse it of racial bias, and infuse it with political ideology have become more and more common—perhaps, even, at your child’s elementary school.”
Klainerman, who grew up in communist Romania, warns that this current classroom dogma is dangerous. He writes: “When it comes to education, I believe the woke ideology is even more harmful than old-fashioned communism.”
Columbia University English professor John McWhorter also chimed in against this math education document and its recommendations. “This lovely pamphlet is teaching us that it is racist to expect black kids to master the precision of math,” he writes in a blog post. “To wit—its message, penned by people who consider themselves some of the most morally advanced souls in the history of the human species, is one that Strom Thurmond would have happily taken a swig of whiskey to.”
“This, folks, is the ‘Critical Race Theory’ that so many of us are resisting, not a simple program for ‘social justice,’” McWhorter later adds. “To distrust this document is not to be against social justice, but against racism.”
Parents are rightly concerned. They send their children to school to learn academic subjects and to be pushed intellectually, not to be indoctrinated into a leftist, race-based ideology and to be held back from accelerated classes on “equity” grounds.
Weak Academic Outcomes in US Schools
This is particularly concerning when the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “Nation’s Report Card,” show flat or falling outcomes. Fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores declined in 2019 from 2017. For 12th graders, math scores were flat overall and English scores had declined since the test was previously administered to seniors in 2015. Boys were particularly struggling. Overall, seniors scored nine points lower in 2019 than they did in 1992. More troubling, scores for black and Hispanic students who scored in the bottom 10th percentile were 24 and 17 points lower, respectively, than they were in 1992.
This backsliding of academic performance should be a wake-up call to focus more time on mathematics and English rather than diluting the curriculum with ideological teachings. In one of his final articles before he died last December, renowned economist Walter Williams decried the poor academic performance of students in large urban school districts. “In two city high schools,” Williams wrote of Detroit, “only one student tested proficient in math and none are proficient in English. Yet, the schools spent a full week learning about ‘systemic racism’ and ‘Black Lives Matter activism.’”
Part of the problem with low-performing government schools and increased politicization of the classroom has to do with the compulsory nature of government schooling. It was political and coercive from the start. Despite the enduring myth that public schools were initiated to provide equal opportunity for all and aid the poor and vulnerable, the reality is that compulsory government schooling is rooted in a desire for social control.
Chapter 2: The Death and Rebirth of Education Options in American History
The history of compulsory schooling is rife with paternalism, intolerance, and a desire to shape people into a standard mold. Prior to the onset of compulsory schooling, education in America was broadly defined, diversely offered, and not dominated by standard schooling. Homeschooling was the default, with parents assuming responsibility for their children’s education, but they were not the only ones teaching them.
Small dame schools, or nursery schools in a neighbor’s kitchen, were common throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras. Tutors were ubiquitous and apprenticeships were valued and sought-after. There was a wide assortment of private schools, church schools, and charity schools for the poor. Public schools also existed for families that wanted them, but they did not yet wield significant power and influence. Municipalities were compelled to offer public schools, but parents were never compelled to send their children there until the “common school movement” initiated coercion in education beginning in the 1850s.
History books detailing the push for universal, compulsory schooling perpetuate the belief that Americans were illiterate prior to mass schooling, that there were limited education options available, and that mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force was the surest way toward equality.
In truth, literacy rates were quite high, particularly in Massachusetts, where the first compulsory schooling statute was passed in 1852. Historians Boles and Gintis report that approximately three-quarters of the total US population, including slaves, was literate. This was in large part due to the multitude of education options available prior to compulsory schooling laws, and the central role of family in society. Government schooling wasn’t—and isn’t—necessary to ensure an educated citizenry.
The primary catalyst for compulsory government schooling was a wave of massive immigration in the early- to mid-1800s that made lawmakers fearful. Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics escaping the deadly potato famine, and they threatened the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant social order of the time. In 1851, the editor of The Massachusetts Teacher, William Swan, wrote:
In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children. If left to their direction the young will be brought up in idle, dissolute, vagrant habits, which will make them worse members of society than their parents are; instead of filling our public schools, they will find their way into our prisons, houses of correction and almshouses. Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.
The idea that parents get in the way of children’s education and can halt their flourishing was shared by many of the common school reformers. As he was designing the architecture for compulsory mass schooling in the 19th century, Horace Mann argued that education was too important to be left to parents’ discretion. He explained that strong parental bonds are obstacles to children’s and society’s development, writing in his fourth lecture on education in 1840:
Nature supplies a perennial force, unexhausted, inexhaustible, reappearing whenever and wherever the parental relation exists. We, then, who are engaged in the sacred cause of education, are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.
Mann and his contemporaries were instrumental in supporting the shift in control of education from the family to the state. The historian Carl Kaestle perfectly captures this shift. “Society educates in many ways; the state educates through schools,” he wrote in Pillars of the Republic. Common school reformers like Mann believed this push toward state control of education was for the common good. Coercion was justified, they thought, because its intentions were well-meaning. The state would educate children better than parents and other private actors, these reformers preached, despite the fact that parents like Mann homeschooled his own children while mandating forced schooling for others.
“Choice for me but not for thee” continues to be a hypocritical mantra of today’s anti-school-choice activists and politicians. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, follows in the footsteps of Horace Mann by condemning school choice policies that empower parents even as she chose private education for her child. The elites always have education choice, but they too often want to prevent everyone else from exercising similar agency.
The Decline of Private Schools
As the state assumed greater control over education in the 19th century, many private schools could no longer compete. Parents now had to pay twice for their child’s education, both through tuition and compulsory taxation, and common schools became a convenient, no-cost education default. In his book Schooled to Order, historian David Nasaw explains that as government schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts, the number of private schools in the state dropped from 1,308 in 1840 to only 350 by 1880. Similar trends occurred in other states as they enacted compulsory schooling laws, with private school enrollment subsequently plummeting. It’s hard to compete with “free” and compulsory.
Still, some private schools did. Catholic schools expanded throughout the late-19th century, as families and parishes refused to send their children to the allegedly secular, but overtly Protestant, public common schools. States began to enact legislation to limit education funding of these private schools, and these laws, known as Blaine Amendments, continue to stymie school choice policies more than a century later.
The government’s control over education grew throughout the 20th century. Compulsory schooling laws were extended to later in adolescence and initiated at ever-younger ages. Kindergartens became absorbed into local public schools. Children began spending more of their days and years in school, and public schools began to take on a greater welfare role, implementing what are known as “wraparound services” such as healthcare, that were previously in the domain of family and civil society.
Parents Reclaim Their Rights
Just as the federal government was securing its (unconstitutional) dominance over American education with the establishment of the US Department of Education in 1979, parents were beginning to push back and reassert control of their children’s education from the state. The modern homeschooling movement was launched during this decade, birthed by anti-establishment “hippies” on the political left and quickly growing to include religious conservatives on the right. After years of battling local and state authorities for the recognized right to educate their own children, parents secured their homeschooling freedoms and the practice became legally recognized in all US states by the mid-1990s.
Also in the 1990s, parents and educators began introducing and expanding charter school legislation that allowed families to choose public schools that were more autonomous, less bureaucratic, and not tied to a zip code. I discuss charter schools in more detail in the following chapter.
At the turn of the millennium, as the federal government doubled-down on centralized education policy through the No Child Left Behind Act, and Common Core curriculum frameworks moved K-12 schooling further toward standardization and testing, support for school choice policies increased. Parents wanted a way out, and voucher programs, education savings accounts, and tax-credit scholarships provided that pathway, allowing education dollars to fund students instead of school systems.
Today, after a disastrous year of pandemic schooling, parents are even more determined to take the reins of their children’s education from politicians and bureaucrats. Support for school choice policies is at record high levels, and more parents are searching for new and different learning options for their children. It could be a silver lining in an otherwise dreadful year, as education control shifts away from the state and back to the family as was the norm prior to compulsory mass schooling.
Now is the time for you to take back control of your child’s education from the state, and seek out learning options that are the best fit for your child and family. Let’s take a closer look at some of those options.
 Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “The origins of mass public education,” History of Education: Major Themes, Volume II: Education in its Social Context, ed. Roy Lowe (London: Routledge Falmer, 2000), 78.
 Kaestle, Carl. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983, p. xi.
 Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Schooling in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 83.
Chapter 3: Affordable Private Schools and Charter Schools
Soon after education reformers made schooling compulsory in the 19th century, many families rebelled. In particular, Irish Catholic immigrants were disillusioned by the public schools their children were expected to attend. These purportedly secular schools were anything but, filled as they were with Protestant teachers and texts that reinforced the dominant cultural norms and expectations of the time.
Rather than go along, parents and parishes created their own parallel system of Catholic schools to educate children outside government-run institutions. Various state laws were passed throughout the late-19th century to try to limit the growth and financial security of these parochial schools, and in 1922, Oregon passed a law requiring all children to attend public schools only. This law essentially banned private schools, most of which were Catholic schools at the time.
Fortunately, the Oregon law was overturned in 1925 in the landmark US Supreme Court case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters. Justice McReynolds delivered the opinion of the Court, writing:
. . . the Act of 1922 unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control. . . The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.
Private schools were rescued from government tyranny and parents had their caregiving role affirmed. Today, many parents would prefer a private school education for their children if possible. According to surveys by EdChoice, while about 80 percent of US K-12 school children attend a local district school, only about one-third of their parents prefer them there. Many parents would rather send their children to a private school or a charter school, or homeschool them instead. Private education may be more accessible than parents think, as this past year has shown.
Pandemic-Induced Private Schooling
The prolonged shutdowns of public schools across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic response resulted in astonishing public school enrollment drops in the 2020/2021 academic year, as more parents chose private education options, including private schools that were more likely to reopen for in-person learning than public schools. Most states saw declining enrollment in public schools, and some cities and states—especially those with ongoing school closures—saw particularly large dips.
The Associated Press reported in April 2021 that public school enrollment in California dropped by 160,000 this academic year, which is “by far the biggest decline in years.” NPR revealed that Orange County and Miami-Dade County in Florida had enrollment declines of 8,000 and 16,000 public school students, respectively. Los Angeles public school enrollment dropped by nearly 11,000 students.
A December 2020 analysis of private school enrollment found that 70 percent of private schools surveyed experienced either increased or constant enrollment compared to last year. Of those indicating that their enrollment remained the same, it was due to already being at capacity. These schools have been more responsive to parental demand for in-person learning, and may continue to see renewed interest from frustrated parents seeking better educational options.
In Boston, interest in Catholic schools soared last summer when Massachusetts teacher unions announced a push for remote learning only, while the state’s parochial schools committed to in-person learning. Thomas Carroll, the head of Boston’s Catholic school network, said the enrollment demand from parents was immediate. In an interview with Boston NPR, Carroll explained:
When it hit the evening news, our phone(s) started ringing off the hook all across all of our 100 schools. . . I joke that we should send a thank you note to the school districts, because of their tone deafness, in terms of what the parents were looking for.
While Catholic schools have seen declining enrollment overall during the past decade, they could be a private education option for parents to consider—whether or not they identify as Catholic. The average tuition nationally for all private schools is just over $12,000 a year, with wide geographic variability. For example, the most expensive private schools are in New England, with average annual tuition hovering around $20,000.
Catholic schools are among the lowest-cost private schools, with average annual elementary school tuition under $5,000 nationally. Other religiously-oriented private schools can also be affordable and worth exploring, as some are open to students of all faiths.
The high price tag on non-sectarian, independent schools can sometimes lead parents to ignore them as viable options, but often these schools can offer generous financial aid packages, scholarships, or sliding-scale tuition. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, a membership association representing 1,600 US K-12 private schools with an average, all-grade annual tuition of $25,900, more than 20 percent of families receive financial aid. The average financial aid grant is about $15,000 a year.
Many private schools are particularly eager to attract a more demographically diverse student body that spans the socioeconomic spectrum. They may offer a pay-what-you-can tuition model that allows more affluent families to pay the full tuition cost while subsidizing tuition for low- and middle-income families. According to a May 2021 report by CNBC, the $50,000 a year Ideal School of Manhattan is so focused on making their school more accessible to more families that it recently launched a scholarship program that provides a 75 percent tuition reduction for new students.
Additionally, this year has been marked by rising support for education choice policies that enable per pupil taxpayer funding to follow the student instead of going to the school system. Parents and taxpayers who may not have thought much about school choice prior to the pandemic response suddenly realized that education funds might be better off going directly to students to use toward private school tuition or approved educational expenses, rather than buttressing shuttered district schools.
According to findings from an April 2021 RealClear Opinion Research survey, 71 percent of US voters back school choice and 65 percent support parents using some per-pupil education funding for private options if public schools don’t reopen for full-time, in-person learning. School choice legislation includes introducing or expanding education savings accounts (ESAs), voucher programs, or tax-credit scholarship programs, and more than two dozen states currently have active school choice legislation. Some state bills have recently passed that dramatically expand parental choice in education, and more are likely to win approval as parents demand more options for their kids.
School choice policies and financial aid packages can defray private school tuition costs, but there are also emerging schools and school networks that are intentionally designed to be more affordable. Thales Academy, for example, is a North Carolina-based network of low-cost private schools that has been expanding during the pandemic response even as public school enrollment in the state plunged. Founded more than a decade ago by entrepreneur Bob Luddy who was frustrated with the bureaucracy and poor outcomes of North Carolina’s public schools. “The bad ideas that were developed within the public school system have to be thrown out,” said Luddy in a 2017 interview.
Thales Academy has grown to 11 campuses in three states, enrolling more than 3,600 students at an annual tuition cost of about $5,500 a year, plus generous scholarship programs to offset the cost even further for many families. The state of North Carolina spends roughly twice that amount to educate each of its students in government schools.
Acton Academy is another low-cost network of private schools, often operating on a hybrid homeschool model, that is expanding across the country by parents and educators committed to entrepreneurship and educational creativity. Sometimes these schools begin in private homes and then expand into leased community spaces as enrollment grows. In an article for Forbes, Bill Frezza describes Acton Academy’s potential to remake the educational landscape. He writes:
With the right program as a model, anyone who homeschools his kids can operate an Acton Academy. And not just for his or her own children, but for a schoolhouse full of them. Run the numbers and you can even make a lucrative living while charging tuition well below than that of most conventional private schools.
Acton Academy is part of the growing “microschool” movement that gained popularity prior to the coronavirus pandemic and has since taken off with the emergence of “pandemic pods” over the past year. Microschools and learning pods are multi-age, often home-based, programs that feature a parent facilitator or hired educator to guide small groups of students through a curriculum and self-directed learning projects.
The Prenda microschool network in Arizona, for instance, serves hundreds of students in intimate, mixed-age, mostly in-home learning environments. Parent guides use Prenda’s proprietary learning management platform to help students set and accomplish individual content goals and achieve mastery in core subjects. Prenda is tuition-free for Arizona students through the state’s generous school choice programs, including virtual charter schools and education savings accounts. It is available to out-of-state students for a fee. Prenda also provides support and curriculum resources to encourage entrepreneurial parents and educators to launch their own in-home microschools across the country.
Low-cost private school networks and in-home microschools make private education options more accessible than ever before. The pandemic-related school closures have only catalyzed the growth of these options and led more parents to consider an innovative or emerging learning hub for their kids.
Charter schools are another education option for parents to consider. I first became interested in school choice policy around the turn of the millennium and went to graduate school in education at Harvard to learn more. At the time, focusing on school choice really only meant learning about charter schools. Gratefully, over the past two decades school choice has expanded far beyond charter schools to other policies and learning possibilities that re-empower both parents and students. But it all started with charter schools.
Charter schooling appeared in 1991 when Minnesota became the first state to adopt a charter school law allowing public money to be allocated to new, autonomous public schools that would be funded with taxpayer dollars just like district schools, but operate privately. Now, three decades after their inception, charter schools continue to disrupt conventional district schooling and offer more choice for more families—which is probably why they are often maligned by teachers unions and progressive politicians who vow to shackle them.
More than three million US students attend charter schools today, with some states and cities offering more charter school options than others. For example, about half of all public school students in Washington, DC attend a charter school, while states like South Dakota don’t have any charter schools. With more than 1,200 charter schools, California leads the nation in charter school availability. In New Orleans, the city moved to an all-charter school model in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that devastated the city and loosened the tight grip of institutional power previously held by a large, bureaucratic school system. Now, all New Orleans public school students attend a charter school of their choice, and graduation rates and student test scores have improved.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, often by a non-profit organization or a university. A small percentage of charter schools (about 12 percent) are run by for-profit companies. As public schools, charter schools are tuition-free and cannot exclude students, except through enrollment caps, and must select students through a lottery system if they do not have enough slots for all applicants.
Charter schools are typically tied to state academic standards, curriculum frameworks, and testing requirements that can limit their full autonomy, but they are often free from teacher union collective bargaining agreements, giving them much more flexibility in hiring, firing, and other administrative and school culture decisions. They also have more accountability and are frequently held to a higher standard than district schools.
A school’s charter is typically issued by a state or oversight organization and can be revoked if certain quality benchmarks are not met. Unlike district schools, charter schools can be shut down when they fail. Like private schools, charter schools also need to compete for students. If they are not high quality or are otherwise not serving students, parents can leave. Many charter schools have the opposite problem, however. They are in such high demand that they often attract lengthy waiting lists as students await a prized spot.
Charter schools are government schools and have limitations associated with that designation, including certain academic and accountability standards. But they provide parents a tuition-free schooling option with a greater variety of choice beyond a school assigned according to one’s zip code. They also often focus on a unique learning approach or theme, such as the Montessori teaching method, bilingualism, arts and theater, or STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Some charter schools may require uniforms or have longer school days, and some have high expectations for parents, including helping with homework or reading aloud every day.
Magnet schools were a precursor to charter schools and share similar characteristics in terms of greater autonomy and theme-based learning, but they are operated by the public school district, not privately, and generally have less regulatory flexibility than charter schools.
Aside from being no-cost to parents, charter schools may provide just the right learning environment for your child. Many charter schools accept students from outside a particular city or town boundary, so you can search for charter schools in your broader geographic area that might be a good fit. They want—and need—parents to apply to stay afloat, so they will often be welcoming of prospective students and families and eager to woo you. They will want to make applying as easy as possible for you, and can help you through the process, which is usually as straightforward as filling out kindergarten registration forms at your local district school.
Unlike applying to a private school, there are no academic testing benchmarks or other exclusionary admission hurdles. And if you don’t feel particularly welcomed and wooed during the onboarding process, then that might be a signal for you to keep searching for another option! Like private schools, charter schools have to win—and keep—your approval.
Also like private schools (and public schools), charter schools have gradations of quality and effectiveness and you will want to be vigilant about what and how your children are learning. Urban charter schools have been shown to be particularly effective, compared to a city’s typical public schools. According to a 2015 Stanford University study on urban charter school performance, researchers found that urban charter schools academically outperformed urban district schools.
In fact, some urban charter school networks, such as Success Academy in New York City which serves primarily poor and minority students, consistently outperform New York’s affluent, suburban school districts. The Stanford economist, Thomas Sowell, points out that the achievements of many urban charter schools are what district schooling advocates and teachers unions find so threatening about them.
In Sowell’s 2020 book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, he writes:
Against a background of decades of widespread angst about how, when or whether non-white youngsters could close the test score gap between themselves and their white counterparts, the fact that this gap has already been closed by non-white youngsters in New York City charter schools as a whole is a landmark achievement. It is also an achievement that has received relatively little public recognition, in proportion to the magnitude of that achievement and in proportion to the number of educational doctrines which that achievement has exposed as fallacies.
Charter schools tend to attract visionary teachers, parents, and administrators and are frequently launched by educators or parents who have a game-changing idea for improving learning. Some states have caps on the number of charter schools that can operate, often leading to long wait lists and parent demand that outstrips supply. But other states are eager to expand their assortment of charter schools and encourage entrepreneurial educators to launch new charter schools. Maybe you are one of those “edupreneurs!” (See Chapter 7 for more on entrepreneurship.)
Some of today’s charter schools are actually virtual schools that provide even more choice and flexibility for families. After a year of remote schooling, maybe a virtual learning platform or virtual charter school doesn’t sound too appealing. But don’t let this year’s “Zoom school” taint your impression of online learning. High-quality, virtual learning can be a great option to consider.
 Sowell, Thomas. Charter Schools and Their Enemies. New York: Basic Books, 2020, p. 113.
Chapter 4: Virtual Learning
Remote public schooling as a response to school shutdowns has been a disaster for many children, with a record number of F grades issued this academic year. Both parents and kids are fed up with Zoom school, and many teachers are frustrated with it as well. The Washington Post ran a headline saying we must finally admit that “remote education is a failure.”
It’s important to make a distinction here: Remote pandemic public schooling may be a failure, but remote education more generally is flourishing. Many private, online learning providers are seeing their enrollment numbers climb, as parents search for high-quality, virtual education options for their children and teens.
Pre-COVID Virtual Learning
Prior to the school shutdowns last spring, virtual learning was gaining popularity and momentum, driven in large part by state-of-the-art technology, talented teachers, and innovative entrepreneurs. During the 2017/2018 school year, it’s estimated that about 300,000 US K-12 students were enrolled in a full-time virtual school, with another 130,000 students enrolled in a hybrid school offering a blend of online and in-person instruction. A 2009 meta-analysis of online learning studies conducted by the US Department of Education found that, “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
An example of pre-COVID virtual learning is New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS). It is a fully online, non-profit public charter school that offers tuition-free attendance for New Hampshire residents, and fee-based tuition for out-of-state residents. Children in middle school and high school can choose a full-time online option or a part-time option to complement homeschooling or other school attendance. The school serves about 12,000 students on a part-time basis and nearly 300 full-time students. VLACS has become a model for other online public schools, with standardized test scores and SAT scores comparable to, or higher than, typical New Hampshire public school students.
Speaking in a 2014 NPR interview regarding New Hampshire’s VLACS, English teacher Pauline Landrigan said:
I taught in traditional schools and I got lured here, and I came kicking and screaming because I said “there’s no way kids can learn in a virtual world, got to have that face-to-face.” Well, I’m now here because I believe this is the best way to learn.
When the coronavirus appeared and millions of US students were sent home from school in the spring of 2020, schools and districts scrambled to establish remote Zoom schooling to allow students to continue to learn remotely. This was a gargantuan task. Unlike established virtual schools, traditional schools were not intended to be offered online, teachers were not prepared, and the school curriculum was not set up for a remote format. Even as schools and teachers tried to boost their technology and gain professional development over the summer, Zoom district schooling was rife with shortcomings. This led to much dissatisfaction for students, parents, and teachers, and likely contributed to the large share of failing grades during the fall semester.
The COVID Online Learning Boost
Online education platforms that were designed from the start to operate virtually fared much better, and saw demand increase. K12, Inc. is one of the nation’s leading providers of virtual learning, offering both public and private options. They saw their enrollment numbers increase 38 percent this year, up to 170,000 students. K12 partners with states, districts, charter school networks, and even private universities such as George Washington University Online High School, to provide online learning services. You can check to see if there is a tuition-free option in your state, or explore their fee structure for private online, or out-of-state, options.
Online High School/College Dual Enrollment
One high-quality, virtual learning platform that I’ve been writing about for a while, and where I recently enrolled my teenager, is ASU Prep Digital. It is a kindergarten to 12th grade virtual charter school network affiliated with Arizona State University that offers a particularly innovative program for high school students across the country. Fully online and self-paced, the ASU Prep Digital high school program is high-touch with regular, live, online check-ins with teachers and mentors. It is fully accredited and students can receive a high school diploma if they choose. They can also enroll as a part-time student, taking a la carte classes to supplement other learning.
A key benefit of ASU Prep Digital is that it allows enrolled students to attend concurrent online classes through Arizona State University, accumulating college credits while still in high school and dramatically reducing the cost of college when those credits are ultimately transferred to a four-year university. Moreover, students who do well academically at ASU Prep Digital automatically meet the admission requirements to attend Arizona State University.
The best news? ASU Prep Digital is tuition-free for Arizona residents and, at just under $7,000 a year, an affordable option for many out-of-state high school students as well. When parents consider that the tuition includes college credits during high school that ultimately defray university costs, it becomes even more appealing.
Sure enough, enrollment at ASU Prep Digital skyrocketed 700 percent this year over last year, to 4,500 students. The school’s CEO, Julie Young, led the Florida Virtual School from its inception in 1997 as the nation’s first public, fully online school. She told Inside Higher Ed that school shutdowns and related remote learning plans are responsible for ASU Prep Digital’s recent enrollment surge. “We are definitely hearing from families that the pandemic is a catalyst for our growth,” she said, acknowledging that many parents were uncertain about the quality of their school district’s remote learning approach and valued more well-established, reputable online learning options.
Other universities have similar options for online high school and college dual enrollment, including the University of Texas, the University of Missouri, the University of Nebraska, Indiana University, Texas Tech, the University of Mississippi, and George Washington University, as I mentioned above. The Stanford University Online High School is the most selective (and most expensive) program, serving academically gifted students across the country.
My Tech High
Smaller online learning providers have also gotten a boost this year. My Tech High, for instance, was launched 12 years ago by entrepreneur and educator, Matt Bowman, and experienced rapid growth over the past year. With the 2020 school shutdowns, My Tech High’s enrollment surged, growing 150 percent over last year to serve nearly 20,000 students in eight states. “We have seen that when it’s done right (i.e., NOT Zoom-schooling all day), students can truly thrive in a personalized education program like My Tech High,” says founder Matt Bowman.
Most of the students attend tuition-free, accessing My Tech High through innovative partnerships with charter school networks and some school districts that allow for a more personalized, home-based education for young people ages 5 to 18. It’s been a particularly big hit with military families who move around a lot and value the program’s consistency and customization.
Bowman isn’t the only entrepreneurial educator seizing this moment of virtual learning. Michael Strong, a longtime teacher, author, and successful entrepreneur, quickly recognized that parents were dissatisfied with their children’s remote district schooling and wanted a high-quality, affordable alternative. “There is such immense demand,” he said. “Once parents get regular school piped into their homes, they see that school isn’t always a great fit. They take on significantly more ownership of their child’s education and look for more options.”
Strong recently launched ExpanseOnline.co, a virtual school that provides high-touch, project-based, live remote learning to middle schoolers throughout the US. “The whole world of edtech is one-dimensional, with teachers mostly lecturing to students. Our value proposition is rich, human interactive experiences that students find engaging,” said Strong. With Expanse, middle- and high-school-age students participate interactively in full-day, live remote learning led by a variety of expert educators and in partnership with top-rated, online organizations, such as QuantumCamp and Nobel Explorers. A typical school day begins with community discussion and goal-setting, followed by a Socratic reading and writing seminar. Midday is focused on math and science, while the end of the day emphasizes personalized, one-on-one mentoring and self-directed student projects.
With an annual tuition cost of $8,000 and scholarship possibilities, Expanse is more affordable than many other private education options. Strong intends to reduce the price tag even further through growth and scalability. He believes that the education market is brimming with opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs, as parents seek new and better learning options for their kids.
Strong also thinks education won’t return to the classroom status quo even after the pandemic ends:
The old system of schooling was fragile, relying on tradition and a legacy orientation. We’ll see much more diversity in education models, and a greater realization that the standard path is not required. We now have countless examples of families who have eschewed standard education and they have found happiness and success.
Another online option is Galileo XP, a self-directed learning program for homeschoolers, unschoolers, worldschoolers and other students who are seeking a bit of structure, access to more classes, and a lot of community. Daily, virtual check-ins with a teacher and small groups of students around the globe offer opportunities for consistent social connection, goal-setting, group presentations, and accountability. Classes are offered throughout the week on a wide range of topics, from history, math, and foreign languages to debate clubs, music clubs, book groups, and entrepreneurship incubators. Tuition plans start at $2,000 per year, or parents can choose a monthly option that allows them to cancel at any time.
Launched in the summer of 2019 by a group of parents, educators, and software developers, Galileo has grown from 20 students in its inaugural group to 159 students this fall in 28 countries. Lizz Quain, a director at Galileo, says that while some of these students likely would have joined Galileo regardless of the pandemic, school shutdowns and remote learning have boosted enrollment. “Some former public and private school families who were disillusioned with the traditional school system and wanted a change anyway did enroll, are enjoying this new (to them) way of learning, and plan to stick around,” Quain said. “Some of those parents were so aghast at how their previous schools were handling distance learning, realized that their kids weren’t getting a good education, decided to look for a better online learning environment, and found Galileo.”
Quain believes that the trend toward remote learning was already emerging before 2020 and that parents will continue to seek enriching and effective virtual education models for their children. “The future of online learning was happening pre-pandemic. The pandemic just brought it to the forefront and to the masses,” says Quain. “Unfortunately traditional schools don’t know how to do online learning well. Future-focused and innovative edtech companies such as Galileo are being created to disrupt the traditional education model by truly engaging students, making learning fun again, and allowing for individualized learning, for students to pursue their passions and to create life-long, independent learners.”
The Future of Online Learning
Pandemic Zoom school may be a short-lived failure, but online learning is set to soar. Families have grown more comfortable with virtual interactions this year, more parents will telework post-pandemic, and many students appreciate flexible, customizable education approaches—particularly when they offer an accelerated pathway to college or career goals. Innovative, private online learning providers will continue to emerge and expand, offering more high-quality, low-cost, individualized education options for students and families.
Some school districts have announced they will no longer allow remote learning this fall, but others may continue to offer parents a choice between in-person district schooling or remote schooling this coming school year. This could be a worthwhile option for some families—particularly if districts team up with proven online learning providers and teachers who are well trained in, and enthusiastic about, virtual learning.
As Quain says about the past year: “Once students get a taste of the freedom to choose what they want to learn, it’s not the easiest transition to return to a top down, authoritarian, and institutional learning environment.”
Chapter 5: Homeschooling
Over the past year, more parents than ever before have discovered the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling. Prompted by school closures and the sudden and dramatic shift to at-home learning, parents got a taste of what living and learning alongside their children could be like. Most of us who have homeschooled our children for years will attest to the fact that the spring of 2020 was nothing like typical homeschooling. Most kids were still doing their district schooling at-home, and all of us were forcibly separated from the people, places, and things of our wider communities. Homeschoolers felt the closures and cancellations of classes, sports, and activities just as abruptly and disappointingly as those students who were in a conventional school.
It was a tough time for everyone, which is why I was particularly surprised to discover in April 2020 that more than half of parents surveyed in an EdChoice poll had a more favorable view of homeschooling than they did prior to the school closures. Wow, I thought, if parents think homeschooling is pleasant under these circumstances, then just imagine what they would think of real homeschooling! Typically, homeschoolers are immersed in their communities, visiting museums and libraries, meeting regularly with peers and mentors, and participating in an abundance of local classes and activities. Indeed, 2019 research by Daniel Hamlin at the University of Oklahoma found that homeschoolers are highly engaged in their communities with frequent opportunities to build “cultural capital” through regular visits to libraries, museums, and participation in cultural events. Hamlin reveals that homeschooled students are two to three times more likely to go to a museum, library, historic site, art gallery, or community event than conventionally schooled students each month.
Even though many of these community places are still closed in some areas (including my city’s public library), parents have continued to express growing favorability towards homeschooling over the course of the year. By February 2021, 63 percent of parents polled by EdChoice had a positive opinion of homeschooling.
Homeschooling Trends and Demographics
Along with the rising favorability of homeschooling has come climbing rates of families choosing this education option. Data released in March by the US Census Bureau revealed that 11.1 percent of K-12 students are now being independently homeschooled. This is a large uptick from 5.4 percent at the start of the school shutdowns last spring, and 3.3 percent in the years preceding the pandemic.
In its Household Pulse Survey, the Census Bureau counted homeschoolers as students whose parents had officially removed them from a school or never enrolled them to begin with. This distinguishes independent homeschoolers from the millions of students doing home-based remote schooling during the pandemic response.
In addition to massive overall growth in homeschooling, the survey results also revealed increasing homeschooling rates across all races and ethnicities. While the homeschooling population has become more demographically diverse over the past decade, the Census Bureau found that the number of black homeschoolers increased nearly fivefold between spring and fall of 2020, from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent. This black homeschooling rate is slightly higher than the approximately 15 percent of black students in the overall K-12 public school population.
The latest Census data confirm what previous surveys have shown while also suggesting a tripling of the homeschooling population from its pre-pandemic levels. In August, Gallup reported that 10 percent of families expected to homeschool their children this academic year. And in November, Education Week estimated the number of current homeschoolers at nine percent. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 1.7 million students were homeschooled, according to the most recent federal data from 2016. The Census data now puts that number at over 5.5 million homeschooled students, which is comparable to the number of K-12 students typically enrolled in private schools.
This year’s new homeschoolers are also more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The Education Week survey last fall found that more lower-income families were choosing homeschooling during the pandemic response than higher-income families, challenging the myth that homeschooling families are more affluent than others. The New York Times pointed out this myth in July, explaining that “the population of homeschoolers—before the pandemic—was less affluent than average.”
Even before COVID hit, 21st-century homeschoolers were increasingly reflective of the overall US population, demographically, geographically, ideologically, and socioeconomically. They chose homeschooling for a wide variety of reasons, but a top motivator cited by homeschooling parents in the most recent US Department of Education data on the topic was “concern about the environment of other schools, including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure.” Despite the lingering stereotype of homeschoolers as driven by religiosity, only 16 percent of homeschooling parents in this nationally representative sample chose a “desire to provide religious instruction” as their top motivator. Much of the growth in homeschooling over the past decade has come from urban, secular families seeking a different, more custom-fit educational environment for their kids. Homeschoolers are diverse in many ways, from their reasons for homeschooling, to the educational philosophies they embrace, to the curriculum they use.
Outcomes for homeschooled students are generally positive, with Business Insider proclaiming in 2018 that homeschooling is the smartest way to teach kids in the 21st century. A recent literature review on homeschooling conducted by Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation finds excellent academic results for homeschooled students. She concludes that “the outcomes of those who homeschool, whether the result of homeschooling itself or other unobservable characteristics of families who homeschool such as greater parental involvement, shows positive academic outcomes for participants.”
Can Homeschooling Work for My Family?
Families that never considered homeschooling pre-pandemic are now seriously considering this option, in large part because of the autonomy and individualization it offers. The coronavirus response has also changed the traditional ways many of us worked and learned, and these changes are likely to be long-lasting. The Brookings Institution issued a report in 2020 stating that work-from-home arrangements are likely to remain long after the pandemic fades, as employers and employees realize benefits from remote work. Parents may now have more flexible schedules and are not tied as tightly to a rigid workweek. Maybe their kids don’t need to be tethered to a conventional school schedule either.
Some parents may be intrigued by the idea of homeschooling but worry that it’s too daunting. How could they teach their children everything they need to know? What if both parents need to work or if a single parent wants to try homeschooling? Is it possible?
Yes, it is possible! No, it doesn’t need to feel daunting! With most modern homeschooling approaches, parents act as facilitators and guides, connecting their children to a host of learning tools, curriculum materials, classes, mentors, and peers. The stereotype of a parent (typically a mom) sitting around the kitchen table poring over textbooks with the kids was always more caricature than truth, and it is certainly not the primary approach taken by most homeschoolers today. Many homeschooling parents today work full-time, using tutors, babysitters, learning centers, and community classes to help navigate caregiving and education needs. Some homeschoolers team up with other families to make it all work.
The key thing to remember is that homeschooling is a broad term that encompasses many different teaching and learning approaches and philosophies. Parents can experiment to find the right approach for their family, and can take advantage of the many helpful resources available to them at their fingertips.
Online Learning Tools
One of the things this pandemic year has taught us is how important technology can be in facilitating learning and connection. From the start of the school closures, many organizations introduced or expanded their online learning offerings to help families adapt to time at home. Khan Academy, for instance, is the world’s leader in free, high-quality, online learning videos for K-12 students. A non-profit organization, Khan Academy is used in many classrooms across the country and is particularly known for its math education. Khan stepped up early in the pandemic response to offer sample lesson plans and daily schedules for parents. Self-paced with robust diagnostic and assessment tools, Khan Academy can help students gain mastery in core academic areas, with parents available for support and guidance.
Other free online learning platforms that can help homeschooling parents include: Duolingo.com for foreign languages; MIT’s Scratch and Scratch Jr. for introductory computer programming for kids; No Red Ink for writing and grammar (that also offers a paid premium option); the Smithsonian Institution, as well as other local museum websites; TED-Ed for high-quality videos and supplemental materials on a variety of topics; EdX and Coursera that offer free courses taught by university professors in all kinds of subjects; and Lynda.com that also offers online courses and is often available for free through the local public library.
There are also low-cost, online learning resources that may be helpful. Outschool offers thousands of low-cost, online classes for children of all ages. Classes are taught live by educators over Zoom and you can search by subject, age and day/time. Time4Learning.com provides a complete suite of online, self-paced courses for homeschoolers. It focuses on traditional core subjects, by grade level, for a reasonable monthly fee.
Some high school homeschoolers may benefit from year-long, online courses in a variety of subjects. Thinkwell offers classes for homeschoolers taught by acclaimed professors in subjects ranging from high school and Advanced Placement mathematics and science to American Government, Economics and even public speaking. Blue Tent Online also offers challenging, year-long, online high school classes and Advanced Placement math and science courses for homeschoolers, as well as high school and Advanced Placement English classes.
Offline Learning Tools
There are also many offline learning opportunities as well! As libraries, museums, and historic sites reopen, homeschooling families can take advantage of their incredible services and programming—some of which are tailored just for homeschoolers. Local organizations and small businesses are once again providing classes and activities for homeschoolers. Homeschool park days are reemerging, allowing homeschoolers to gather together regularly for outside play.
Connect with other local homeschooling families through Facebook groups and online networks. Googling your location and the word “homeschooling” will lead you to local groups, listservs, and state-level homeschooling advocacy groups that can help you to meet other homeschooling families and find support. Homeschooling parents share their wisdom, experience, joys, and frustrations, while also offering support around curriculum and coursework. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, but regulations vary by state. Finding other homeschooling families near you can make your entry into independent homeschooling much easier and more fulfilling.
Deschooling and Unschooling
One of the primary points I make in my 2019 book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press), is that education and schooling are separate and distinct. Schooling is one way to be educated, but it isn’t the only way. Taking some time to “deschool” can help children to rediscover their natural curiosity and tap into new interests and talents. Don’t feel the need to rush in and recreate school-at-home, as happened for so many families over the past year with remote Zoom schooling. Take a break. Avoid “school-y” things for a while, and see your child’s spark for learning and discovery reappear as they direct their own learning.
The term “pandemic pod” made its debut in 2020, as parents scrambled to find ways for their children to be both safe and social in small learning groups. Emerging last summer, the pandemic pod is an innovative, parent-driven response to pandemic policies and school closures. Parents connected with each other in social media groups or through local online networks to form alliances with other nearby parents and allow their children to play and learn together in each other’s homes. In some cases, parents took turns facilitating a curriculum or supervising the children, while in other cases they pooled their resources to hire an educator or college student to be in charge. Teachers sometimes discovered they could make more money, and have more flexibility, leading a pandemic pod or tutoring for different families than they could as conventional classroom teachers.
Some of the families used their pod to supplement district Zoom schooling, enabling their kids to learn together with other children while local schools were closed for in-person learning. But many families used pods as a way to make independent homeschooling more feasible and enjoyable. A modern twist on time-honored homeschool co-ops, learning pods can be a low-cost schooling alternative for many families.
For Allison Fried in Fairfax, Virginia the private homeschooling learning pod she organized in her home’s basement with five other families has been “amazing”—and much less expensive than her child’s previous preschool.
“The cost per family and what we would be paying out of pocket was literally 50% of what we were paying the year before for private preschool,” she told Marketplace in February. Her pod costs $1,000 a month per family for the teacher, learning supplies, and cleaning. For older students and teenagers, a homeschooling pod can be a way to support peer interaction and content mastery, with a teacher, parent, or mentor offering instruction and encouragement.
Most pod families find each other through local social networks and word-of-mouth, but edtech startups are also starting to help. SchoolHouse, for example, launched during the pandemic to connect pod families with a teacher to lead a learning pod in a family’s home or, sometimes, an external commercial space. Families sign up through the SchoolHouse website to be matched with an educator. Now operating in 10 states with about 250 families, SchoolHouse just raised $8 million in venture capital funding this spring to expand its offerings and reach. Entrepreneurs will hopefully continue to expand education options for more families, with new learning products and services. (Read more about starting your learning pod in Chapter 7.)
Homeschool Learning Centers
Local homeschool resource organizations, hybrid homeschools, and self-directed learning centers offer additional opportunities for homeschoolers. These programs are typically low-cost, similar to the affordable private schools and microschools described in Chapter 3, and can allow students to attend classes and meet with friends and mentors regularly. Some of these centers offer only part-time attendance options, but others provide full-time programming, five days a week. They come in a variety of formats and have different curriculum approaches and educational philosophies, ranging from fully self-directed, unschooling models such as those supported by the Liberated Learners network, to classical hybrid homeschools that take a more traditional learning approach emphasizing core knowledge and texts. Check out your local homeschool social networks and online groups to learn what is available in your area.
Rising homeschooling rates and innovative learning models have been bright spots in an otherwise bleak year. Many parents have discovered that they have more freedom and autonomy in their work and want to extend that same freedom and autonomy to their children’s learning. Other families have been so frustrated by their district’s delayed openings and subpar Zoom schooling that they needed to take back control of their children’s education. Either way, more parents are realizing that 21st-century homeschooling is a diverse, rewarding, and highly effective education option.
Chapter 6: Options for Teens
The teenage years are a time to prepare for adulthood, especially to build the character and acquire the skills it takes to thrive in one’s culture and economy.
But is school really the place to do that in today’s day and age?
As compulsory government schooling expanded throughout the US in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, gradually consuming more of childhood and adolescence, it mirrored the industrial innovations and efficiencies of the time. Schools were designed to emphasize standardization, order, and regimentation—just as the emerging factories did. To early education reformers, these were novel ideas that transformed civilization from agriculture to industry.
The industrial style of schooling, modeled off of factories and prioritizing standardization and regimentation, may have been a marked achievement over a century ago, but it is wildly mismatched to the realities of the modern era. This factory-inspired education system remains entrenched today, even as technological progress, innovation, and globalization have dramatically reshaped our economy and culture.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 “Future of Jobs” report, by 2025 humans and machines will be equally sharing tasks at work, and millions of jobs now done by humans will be replaced by robots. We are going to need to get much better at differentiating ourselves from these machines. The way to do that is to cultivate and strengthen the skills and qualities that make us distinctly human. These are characteristics such as creativity, curiosity, ingenuity, critical thinking, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Yet, these are the very characteristics that so often get drilled out of students through their long years of compulsory government schooling. Young people learn to give up their creativity in the name of conformity. They shed originality for obedience. They are taught to follow, not to lead, and to obey rather than to question.
Employers are already recognizing the shift in work over the next decade, and are increasingly looking for employees who exhibit traits that are not well taught in today’s schools but that are crucially important for success in the innovation era. Skills such as problem-solving, self-management, active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility are among the top traits that employers now value, according to the World Economic Forum’s recent report.
The best way for young people to cultivate these important skills is to have as much freedom as possible to direct their own learning. After all, if “active learning” is a prized professional trait but the still-dominant industrial schooling model reinforces and rewards passive learning instead, then many students are going to find themselves behind in the workplace and maybe even replaced by machines. What is celebrated in school is increasingly a liability for career success.
Given this economic backdrop, teenagers may find that they can learn and thrive more fully outside a conventional classroom than inside one. High school can be stifling, even depressing, for some young people who want to devote their time and energy to meaningful, real-world projects and pursuits. Even if they choose to go to school, building new skills and refining talents on their own can help teenagers to live a more personally fulfilling life and set them up for professional success.
Whether a teenager goes to a brick-and-mortar school, attends a virtual school, or is homeschooled, she can take steps to craft her own, distinct path to adulthood. Here are some ideas for how teenagers can become active learners, gain independence and agency, and build the skills necessary to flourish in the innovation era.
Become an Autodidact
When he was 14 years old, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix got an old, one-string ukulele from the garbage. He played single notes, teaching himself by ear while listening to Elvis Presley songs. A year later, he bought his first acoustic guitar for $5 and taught himself how to play. He practiced for hours each day, observed other guitarists, sought advice when needed, listened to an array of different music, especially blues, and soon created his first band.
With no formal guitar or music training, Hendrix developed a creative, experimental playing style. He went on to become a celebrated musician whom the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”
He was entirely self-taught.
Humans have an extraordinary capacity for self-education, or autodidacticism. We are innately designed to explore, discover, and synthesize the world around us. The term autodidacticism originates from the Ancient Greek words autós didaktikos, or self-teaching. Increasingly, more careers rely on self-teaching and those “active learning” characteristics that employers look for in recruits. For instance, a survey of over 50,000 software developers found that over 69 percent of them are fully or partially self-taught. Today, fueled by technological innovation that makes learning easier and more accessible than ever before, self-teaching is experiencing a renaissance. Online resources, YouTube tutorials, learning apps, and massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as EdX and Coursera, provide free, real-time access to skills, knowledge, information, and ideas.
Teenagers can start developing their expertise and insight in core content areas, and gain proficiency in high-demand skills areas all on their own. Maybe they are passionate about economics. Maybe they are curious about coding or social media marketing. Maybe they love to write. Maybe they want to start building a solid resume and portfolio of skills. Now is the ideal time for them to do it!
Whatever interests a teen may have, there are classes, tutorials, and opportunities awaiting. If your teenager is interested in economics, she could dig deeper into economic theory using free resources such as those offered by the Foundation for Economic Education. If your teen is interested in coding or social media marketing, she could take a free, introductory programming class online through Coursera or read the popular book, YouTube Secrets, by Sean Cannell about YouTube marketing and monetization. If your teen loves to write, he could hone his writing skills with practice and online classes, and start submitting articles or stories for publication. He could also self-publish his own work, start a blog, or build a website to attract more readers. If your teen wants to begin building a solid portfolio of in-demand technical skills to give her a headstart in the workplace, she could take a free, online Excel course or learn about digital graphic design with a low-cost class from Udemy, one of the top MOOCs.
Technology now makes it possible for people of all ages to teach themselves. Your teenagers don’t need to wait until they finish high school or enter adulthood to nurture their passions and build their skill portfolios. They can begin right now to develop competency in key areas of interest to them, and that will likely open up new possibilities for personal and professional mastery.
Teenagers are able to accomplish remarkable things when given freedom and opportunity. Instead, our culture systematically underestimates teenagers, coddling them like toddlers, confining them to ever more schooling, and disconnecting them from the adult world they will soon enter.
Teens now spend more time in school and less time in work than at any other time in our history—even in the summertime. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985. Overall, teen labor force participation has plummeted from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Part of this decline is related to more emphasis on academics, extracurricular activities, and other structured programming for adolescents. But public policy may also be to blame.
Raising the minimum wage, as many states have aggressively done, has a disproportionate impact on young workers who do not yet have the skills and experience to justify an employer paying them a higher wage. As a result, these neophytes don’t get hired and thus don’t gain the necessary experience to ultimately warrant higher pay. It is widely understood that minimum wage laws lead to higher unemployment, particularly for young and low-skilled workers who are then prevented from gaining important entry-level career skills.
According to a 2019 report by the Congressional Budget Office regarding a proposed $15 federal minimum wage: “The $15 option would alter employment more for some groups than for others. Almost 50 percent of the newly jobless workers in a given week—600,000 of 1.3 million—would be teenagers.”
In a Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.
Not only has the increased emphasis on school and decreased access to and appreciation of teen employment likely contributed to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail. A part-time job may now actually help a teen stand out from the crowd in college admissions and career!
Parents can encourage their teens to gain valuable on-the-job training and develop important career skills through entry-level jobs. Even the most menial work can offer important lessons for ongoing career success.
In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and perhaps start their own small business. With increasing minimum wage laws that can edge teenagers out of the entry-level job market, teen entrepreneurship may be a more accessible way for young people to gain skills and income, and discover the rewards of being their own boss.
Perhaps your teenager has ideas and passions that he could turn into a business right now. Encourage him to tinker and invent, build a website to sell a product or service, or create and monetize a YouTube channel. Maybe she can offer in-demand services to her neighbors such as starting a babysitting business, running errands, teaching kids tennis, or baking custom birthday cakes. Help your teen to spot opportunities and create solutions.
T.K. Coleman, FEE’s Director of Entrepreneurial Education, offers advice and inspiration for aspiring young entrepreneurs in his weekly Revolution of One podcast and social media content. He says:
If you’re interested in starting a new business, you can find lots of cool ideas simply by paying attention to people’s problems. You may have a shortage of ideas, but there’s never a shortage of people complaining about things. And you can transform those complaints into gold if you can figure out a creative way to make them feel better. If someone complains about how busy they are, that’s an opportunity for you to pitch yourself as a personal assistant who does all the little things that get in the way of the bigger problems they should be focusing on. If someone complains about struggling to get their kids to do homework, that’s an opportunity for you to pitch yourself as a tutor. The opportunities are endless because the problems are endless. The key is not underestimating your ability to make a difference with the knowledge and experience that you already have.
Encouraging young people to create their own work that adds value to others can be a powerful way to turn a potential teen employment sag into a productive and personally meaningful entrepreneurial venture.
In Chapter 4, I described several exciting online high school/college dual enrollment options for teenagers that can help them to have more flexibility in their learning and get a headstart on university credits. But even if your teen doesn’t want to attend an online high school, she can often take community college classes while still enrolled in a conventional school. Many states offer “dual enrollment” arrangements for high school students that provide early access to community college classes and credits, often at a significantly reduced price. These courses can help accelerate a teenager’s path to college and ultimately cut down on college tuition costs. As your high schooler accumulates community college credits, these credits can typically be transferred to certain four-year universities, allowing your child, for example, to skip a college semester or graduate early. This can dramatically reduce the overall, hefty college tuition bills and loans that many families and students are saddled with.
Teen homeschoolers have been taking advantage of community college classes during the high school years for quite some time. In fact, many homeschoolers who plan to attend college begin taking community college classes at around age 16. Some even earn an Associate’s Degree at 18 while their same-age peers settle for a high school diploma. They can then enroll in a four-year university, if they choose, with a year or more of college credits under their belts. With college costs soaring, it is good to see more families recognize that taking advantage of dual enrollment options during high school can make a solid dent in skyrocketing tuition fees.
Alternatives to College
Of course, your teenager doesn’t need to go to college. There are many fulfilling and financially rewarding pathways to adulthood that don’t involve university attendance. In fact, some Silicon Valley technology companies, like Google and Apple, no longer require employees to have a college degree. And Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, said in February 2020 that he seeks deep coding expertise in his recruits but could care less about degrees and diplomas. “A PhD is definitely not required,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “Don’t care if you even graduated high school.”
Fortunately, there are now many ways to gain skills and knowledge and signal your value to potential employers like Musk, without a college degree. More than 400 “coding bootcamps” are reported to exist around the world, helping people to master in-demand programming and software development skills. The online coding school, Lambda School, which has raised over $100 million in venture capital funding since its launch in 2017, has a fascinating business model focused on income-share agreements. It is free to attend Lambda, but the company takes a percentage of its graduates’ earnings once they land a high-tech job. If the student doesn’t land a job, she doesn’t pay. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is estimated that Lambda is receiving over 1,000 applications a week from interested students.
Other alternatives to college are sprouting, and apprenticeship programs like Praxis continue to be sought-after.
Entrepreneurs like Musk recognize what it takes to succeed in the innovation era, and it has little to do with conventional schooling. Discovering passions, pursuing personal goals, and developing essential skills to build on those passions and achieve those goals are made easier with the abundant resources and tools literally in the palm of our hands.
Chapter 7: The Curious—and Entrepreneurial—Parent
Remember Andrew Gutmann, the parent I wrote about in Chapter 1 who pulled his daughter out of the posh Brearley School in Manhattan due to its obsession with Critical Race Theory? He announced in a May podcast that he is planning to do some version of homeschooling for his daughter during the upcoming academic year, and may try to launch his own New York City private school that focuses on core academic knowledge and critical thinking over identity politics.
He is not alone. Many parents are frustrated by their children’s current schooling environment, for a wide variety of reasons, and want other options. Entrepreneurial parents and educators are the ones who will—and are—building new and better learning models to meet this demand. Maybe you can too.
The lockdowns and related pandemic policies caused widespread economic and social disruption over the past year. There is much to despair about. Yet, 2020 data showed that entrepreneurship surged during the pandemic response, as creators and doers seized opportunities and spotting unfulfilled needs.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis last fall, “Americans are starting new businesses at the fastest rate in more than a decade.” The pandemic offered a moment ripe for “creative destruction,” the term used by economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, to describe the dynamic process of new business models and enterprises replacing legacy organizations and industries. He explained that capitalism is “the perennial gale of creative destruction,” fueled by entrepreneurship and innovation. Schumpeter writes:
The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as US Steel illustrated the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.
Especially in times of upheaval like today, people’s needs change. As a result, solutions that worked before become outmoded. Innovation upends these old ways of doing things and offers fresh ideas and solutions that are better suited to people’s current needs and preferences. Dissatisfied with the status quo, entrepreneurs imagine alternatives and introduce their vision into the marketplace. The economic and social turbulence resulting from the pandemic lockdowns provides countless opportunities to meet new and changing consumer demands.
Perhaps nowhere is this turbulence more apparent than in education. The creative destruction now occurring in the education sector is poised to dramatically reshape American education, with new, more accessible, more relevant learning models replacing the conventional classroom that was already being challenged pre-pandemic. In Washington, DC, entrepreneurial parent Luba Vangelova was planning to open The Hub last fall as an in-person, self-directed community learning space for homeschoolers and others who wanted a more flexible education approach. When the pandemic hit, she had to pivot to an online format and temporarily table her in-person plans, but she remains hopeful. As one parent recently told her: “You’ve created digital joy, which is very hard to find.”
According to Vangelova:
This is a year of great flux in the world, with a lot of social, political and economic transformations that are only just gaining steam, and although it’s been challenging on many fronts to pivot and adapt, I feel good about the fact that The Hub has been able to offer something valuable that is “of the moment,” while also modeling a healthy culture and vision for learning and living in the future.
In addition to gains in virtual learning, the emergence of learning pods and the expansion of microschools are accelerating the creation of accessible education options beyond a district school. These models, and those yet to be imagined, will continue to disrupt industrial schooling and lead to more choices for more parents.
Create a Learning Pod
Driven by necessity, many parents jumped into entrepreneurship over the past year as they formed “pandemic pods” and other small learning arrangements for their children. Some of these parents have decided that they like these new pods and want to continue with them indefinitely, while other parents are exploring this model as an option for the fall. Continued masking and social distancing protocols in schools, lingering fears about the virus, or dissatisfaction with the current school climate have prompted parents to consider a different learning approach for the upcoming academic year.
Whether you have always wanted to launch a school, or are just beginning to dream about it, now is an ideal time to start. Learning pods provide the perfect template for starting small and building slowly, and they are becoming widely accepted and sought after by parents.
Here are five tips for starting a learning pod:
Why do you want to create a pod and what do you want it to achieve? Create a checklist, from most important to least, of what you want your pod to look like and what outcomes you hope to accomplish.
For instance, if you are creating a pod for your kids because you are upset by ongoing masking requirements (double masking in some schools!), then a mask-free pod may be of top importance to you. If you are creating a pod because you don’t like the heightened focus on critical race theory in your child’s school, then you may want your pod to emphasize core academic subjects. If you want your pod to be characterized by a particular educational philosophy, such as self-directed learning, the Montessori method, or Waldorf learning, then become clear on what that would entail and what tools and resources you will need. Decide what you want your pod to look like first, and then share your vision with others.
According to April polling by EdChoice, 42 percent of parents indicate that they are currently in or want to be in a learning pod for their kids. There are also many parents who prefer to be in a learning pod but have not yet found one. This creates an enormous opportunity for pod-building parents and educators to fill this gap. The recent polling also shows that parents’ willingness to pay for a learning pod has increased, even since January. The average parent is paying, or would pay, $592 per month for his child to participate in a pod, which is up $169 since the start of 2021.
Once you decide on your pod’s focus, you will need to recruit other families who share your vision. Use local social media networks, Facebook groups, community message boards, listservs, and word-of-mouth to announce your intention of creating a learning pod, and be upfront about your key expectations (i.e., no masks, core curriculum content). Be open to collaboration and change, depending on how your pod comes together. Most learning pods will be well suited to occur in private homes that allow for greater autonomy, less regulation, and lower cost, but you may decide to rent space elsewhere in your community.
In some states, legislators have tried to regulate learning pods over the past year, while in others, policymakers are pushing back with proposed legislation to protect pods from government overreach. You will want to investigate the regulations in your state. You will also likely have more flexibility if many of the pod parents remain onsite. Perhaps setting up a remote working space for parents could be useful.
Most pod families will likely become registered homeschoolers in their state, so you will want to explore state-level requirements for homeschool registration and reporting. Get clear on your pod’s policies and procedures, and check-in regularly with parents and learners to ensure overall satisfaction.
Some learning pods may rely on parents taking turns leading curriculum or supervising students, but many of the pods that sprouted over the past year involved hiring an outside teacher to run a pod. With parents willing to pay generously for a learning pod experience, teachers can make a solid income with maximum flexibility. Most pods run about five hours per day, up to five days a week and could have up to a dozen, often multi-age students. They are the 21st century version of the historic, one-room schoolhouse.
Families can contribute funds toward hiring a teacher, and then advertise to find an educator, tutor, or college-age student to lead the pod. Pod families may decide to hire multiple educators to offer variety and tap into expertise areas. Also, some parents may be able to contribute less in money but more in time or expertise, or offer their home as the pod location. This can help to make pods more accessible and allow parents to better allocate their resources. Background checks are easy to get for your prospective pod leader, and you will want to check references as well.
Your pod teacher(s) may have some ideas of a preferred curriculum to use or approach to take, or you may want to work with the teacher to decide on curriculum and style. There are a wide variety of homeschool curriculum offerings to choose from, or you and your teacher can use online learning platforms, such as Khan Academy or IXL.com.
It is the responsibility of all parents to make sure that their children are highly literate and numerate, and are progressing and thriving. This is true whether your children go to school, are homeschooled, or attend a learning pod, microschool, online school, or some other educational setting. Working with your pod teachers and other families, you will want to regularly assess the quality and outcomes of your learning pod, and make sure everyone—students, teachers, and parents—is satisfied with the experience. Some learning pods may want to use standardized tests or similar assessment tools to determine quality and learner progress, while other pods may rely on more subjective measures.
Perhaps a simple learning pod that works well for your child and the small group of families with whom you partner will be all that you are seeking. But maybe you will find that you are able to help other families follow in your footsteps and create new pods. You could begin to offer pod startup consulting services to other families who want to launch a pod, or you could create a “pod package,” including curriculum tools to sell to other families. You may even decide to scale your in-home learning pod model to an entire microschool network. This is what Kelly Smith did. He is the founder of Prenda Microschools in Arizona that I described in Chapter 3. Launched in 2018 in his home for his son and a few neighborhood kids, Prenda now has over 400 microschools in its network and continues to grow.
Fostering a Free Market in Education
Learning pods and other examples of education entrepreneurship should be cheered and championed. We should encourage more visionary parents and educators to design new learning models that provide alternatives to our entrenched and outdated government-controlled education system. When free from the fetters of government oversight and regulation and guided by the free market, these innovators will build educational solutions that are better, cheaper, more creative, more personalized, and more successful than coercive government schooling.
FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, predicted what would happen in a free market in education, with parents empowered to guide their children’s education and innovative entrepreneurs free to serve both parents and children. Writing in 1964, before the rise of the modern homeschooling movement and when learning pods were yet to be imagined, Read said:
While one cannot know of the brilliant steps that would be taken by millions of education-conscious parents were they and not the government to have the educational responsibility, one can imagine the great variety of cooperative and private enterprises that would emerge. There would be thousands of private schools, large and small, not necessarily unlike some of the ones we now have. There would be tutoring arrangements of a variety and ingenuity impossible to foresee. No doubt there would be corporate and charitably financed institutions of chain store dimensions, dispensing reading, writing, and arithmetic at bargain prices. There would be competition, which is cooperation’s most useful tool! There would be a parental alertness as to what the market would have to offer. There would be a keen, active, parental responsibility for their children’s and their own educational growth.
While this year has been difficult and daunting, the entrepreneurial spark that has been ignited for many parents and educators burns bright and strong. It’s never been a better time to be an “edupreneur!”
Chapter 8: Still Curious?
This has been a year of both disruption and opportunity. It has created a moment of reflection for many parents and educators, and encouraged an “out with the old, in with the new” mindset. The pandemic was an awful tragedy, but the silver lining is that it is also catalyzing creative destruction.
Education has been at the center of this turmoil. From delayed school reopenings, dystopian school hygiene guidelines, and unsatisfactory district Zoom schooling, to the relentless focus on group identity and Critical Race Theory in today’s classrooms, more parents than ever before are seeking different education options for their children.
This ebook has hopefully given you new insights on some of these options. Private schools may be more affordable than you think, and charter schools—while still public and therefore tuition-free—can offer more opportunities for personalization and choice than an assigned district school. Virtual learning had its reputation stained this year with the disaster of district Zoom schooling, but high-quality, online learning providers were emerging prior to the pandemic and have boosted their reach and impact. Homeschooling numbers have tripled from pre-pandemic levels, as parents opt out of conventional schooling for more educational freedom and flexibility. Similarly, options for teenagers to explore alternative pathways to adulthood continue to expand.
The rise in entrepreneurship over the past year has brought hope and optimism, particularly to the families who have joined—or wish to join—learning pods and microschool networks. There is still much unmet demand for these innovative, low-cost, family-centered schooling alternatives, and education entrepreneurs are well positioned to satisfy it.
This ebook only scratched the surface of what education options are currently possible, and more are being envisioned and invented every day. If nothing here suits you and your child, create your own! It’s likely that other parents are looking for the same thing.
We are at a moment of profound education transformation. The 19th-century industrial schooling model is on shaky ground and set to be swept away by 21st-century learning models that value options over assignments, choice over compulsion, freedom over force. Driven by entrepreneurial parents and educators, the free market in education is strengthening and will continue to provide more options for more families—just as it does for every other good or service that is released from government control.
Since its founding in 1946 as the country’s first libertarian think tank, FEE has been supporting the principles of free-market economics, limited government, individual liberty, and peace. If you or your family members are curious to learn more about these bedrock principles of a free society, please visit our website at FEE.org, and check out our online learning center aimed especially at teenagers and young adults.
And if you want to stay up-to-date on education issues and opportunities, please sign up for my weekly email newsletter at FEE.org/liberated.
Best wishes for a satisfying and successful learning year ahead!