As too many school systems dithered indecisively regarding reopening, many parents have decided that one lost semester was one too many and acted. Micro-schools-or “Pandemic Pods” are fast becoming the Cajun Navy of K-12 education, but not everyone is pleased. The Texas Tribune, for instance, said “The ‘Do It Yourself’ approach to education threatens to leave behind students of color and poorer families.”
We should celebrate parents taking greater responsibility for the education of their children. And Texans should change antiquated K-12 policies to address equity concerns and give all families the opportunity to explore these options.
In retrospect, Hurricane Katrina seems like a warm-up for the pandemic that has upended American life and schools. The storm left behind searing images of a shattered New Orleans, with desperate residents awaiting rescue during a bumbling official response. Fields of Orleans Parish school buses sat submerged instead of high and dry after evacuating the vulnerable. While government floundered, civil society rose to the challenge. The Cajun Navy self-organized into the sort of private “little platoon” of voluntarism long praised in the American spirit.
Civil society is rising to the occasion again today with families forming their own small schools across the country. The trend towards micro-schooling started years ago, and has been growing in Texas with the rise of Acton Academies and others. The summer of 2020, however, has seen thousands of parents begin to organize their own small schools and hire their own teachers. This is a welcome development for both teachers and students. But state policymakers must embrace enlightened policy to ensure disadvantaged families can participate.
Micro-schools involve a small number of families banding together to cooperate in the education of their children. Sometimes this involves a team approach to teaching, and in others the families hire instructors. The innovation creates new opportunities for educators to pursue their own vision of education, and creates new options for families. In the years before the pandemic, public school teacher job satisfaction steadily declined, while rates of student bullying, anxiety and depression rose.
One of the consistent attributes I have noticed in visiting micro-schools is that they not only seem effective, they also seem fun. I have watched micro-school kids on the Apache Nation in Arizona having a blast with 3D printing design and high school students running their own real estate business out of another. Scholarship programs in Florida have been allowing low-income students and children with disabilities access to micro-schools for years.
The pandemic has accelerated this trend. Before the pandemic, highly motivated (and sometimes highly dissatisfied) families served as trailblazers. One shattered spring of impromptu distance learning later, frustration is rampant, and parents are forming their own small schools.
The equity issue raised by the Tribune is real, but the solution is relatively simple. Let’s allow education money to follow the child. Educators around the country are using district, charter and private choice programs to create micro-schools in which the teachers run the show and the kids go to school where everybody knows their name. Do It Yourself education is here to stay. Will Texas policy give everyone the opportunity to participate?
Dr. Matthew Ladner is director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity, executive director of redefinED, and is a visiting scholar with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.