As the school year begins across the country, the coronavirus pandemic and challenges facing U.S. schools and parents are massive. As schools and states across the country grapple with how to reopen with online and/or in-person learning this fall, policymakers are exploring and embracing innovative schooling models that could help revolutionize how we educate children while empowering families and students alike.
As the pandemic continues to make matters difficult for a fall reopening, parents are increasingly considering alternatives to traditional schooling after COVID-19 disruptions that could leave some students a full year behind in learning.
In Texas, the Texas Home School Coalition has reported rapid upticks in interest, often from parents who’ve spent the last few months supervising remote learning, with many making inquiries at homeschooling cooperatives and advocacy groups about the first steps.
It’s encouraging to see families exploring education options. Early on during the coronavirus pandemic, Education Week reported that three-quarters of students reported their morale was down and two-thirds of teachers reported difficulties in teaching remotely.
But, as parents seek options, we know homeschooling simply isn’t for everyone. Luckily, it’s not the only alternative.
Innovative and increasingly popular options, like hybrid-homeschooling and micro-schooling, offer key features of both traditional and homeschooling models—all while providing a flexible mix that’s right for many families and kids. And there’s certainly more that policymakers can do to facilitate these options.
Homeschooling had gained popularity long before COVID-19. The number of homeschooled kids doubled between 1999 and 2016. Today, 3 percent of the U.S. population is being homeschooled, with that number expected to rise during the pandemic.
Typically, parents choose homeschooling for a variety of reasons, like a desire to pull their kids out of a negative school environment, a drive to provide for their kids’ special needs, or simply dissatisfaction with the quality or approach of conventional school instruction.
American students lag behind their international peers despite above-average per-pupil public education spending. By contrast, 11 out of 14 peer-reviewed homeschooling studies find overwhelmingly positive effects on student achievement.
But homeschooling can be difficult. Parents might not be able to stay home, to take enough time off from work, or might struggle to teach more advanced subjects in later years. And although parents want some control over their kids’ educations, they might want the support and benefits that come with being part of a school community.
That’s where hybrid homeschooling can help. Hybrid schools operate anywhere from one-to-three days per week, providing structure in the student’s education and exposure to a school community while affording parents a central role in schooling. This is similar to what’s already happening at public schools in parts of Virginia and elsewhere, where families find themselves providing remote instruction for a few days a week as schools reopen part-time. But hybrid schools would differ from these public schools in two key ways.
First, public schools keep the funding allocated for every child they educate, even if parents are effectively on the hook for over 50 percent of in-class instruction, as is the case in Virginia. Conversely, hybrid schools levy fees based on services provided — a cost-effective alternative at a time when state budgets are facing cuts. While hybrid school fees can often range from $4,000 to over $6,000 a year, depending on the amount of in-class instruction or services provided, the average American public school student costs taxpayers over $13,000 a year to educate.
Second, hybrid schools aren’t bound by centralized state curriculums. They’re independent communities of similar-minded parents who collaborate on curriculums with assistance from institutions and non-governmental organizations like educational resource networks or colleges. In other words, they give families and communities full control in addressing their child’s social and academic needs, with a strong foundation of guidance and support.
This flexibility offers a range of tailored models to suit the specific interests of different families. Some schools provide Socratic seminars and focus on classical texts. Others provide instruction but expect parents to act as facilitators or guides, and some simply supplement standard homeschooling with tutoring and/or extracurricular activities. Some are faith-based and others are secular.
For parents seeking the individualized attention and tailored curriculum of homeschooling, but not the responsibility of instruction, there are micro-schools: groups of under a dozen children who are educated by a teacher, typically at the teacher’s home. An advantage of micro-schools is that they give experienced and entrepreneurial teachers full autonomy over their income and mode of instruction — a potential blessing at a time when demand for alternative education options is increasing while raises for public school staff are on the chopping block.
Educational Savings Accounts, or ESAs, in some states, offer parents seeking alternative options to conventional public schools a portion of the taxpayer funds earmarked for their child’s education. These can be spent on private school tuition or various K-12 education expenses. While they typically apply only to children with special needs or in other narrow circumstances, ESAs could be extended to all students whose education has been disrupted by COVID-19.
Arizona’s ESA program already allows parents to enroll students in micro-schools, while New Hampshire’s tax credit scholarships, which operate similarly, are redeemable for homeschool expenses. Other states could explicitly include hybrid and micro-schools in similar programs and could apply the same regulatory requirements or publicly-reported standardized tests as traditional schools.
By tweaking existing policies in response to the greatest challenge to public education in living memory, policymakers could begin to remodel the education system so it better fits the needs of students and parents.