A surprising result of COVID and the resulting school closures is that many parents, after struggling to figure out how to make sure their children got an education at home, have decided not to go back to traditional K-12 education. While there has been a lot of ink spilled about teachers leaving K-12 education, we haven’t talked much about the students who are leaving as well. It is important to point out that the relative percent of students leaving is still much smaller than teachers, but it is still worth exploring this trend.
For years conservative politicians have promoted school choice. The basic underpinning of school choice is that a parent should be able to decide to take their child to whatever school best fits their needs, even if that school is private and religiously affiliated. It is easy to see why Republican lawmakers, and many religiously affiliated parents, like this idea.
When thinking about leaving public most parents chose between Charter schools, Private schools, and homeschooling.
But it isn’t just conservatives who support this concept. One segment of those who supported “school choice” did it because they felt like large school districts were failing their children and wanted a school that was more accountable to the neighborhood or just to the parents of the students attending.
This desire for local control has led partially to the public charter school boom that has happened since No Child Left Behind. These charters are still publicly funded and non-religious, and in an ideal world they create much better schools. The documentary Waiting for “Superman”, which Bill Gates promoted at Sundance, glorified the charter system. But it glossed over some of the ways that they are sometimes less accountable. John Oliver produced an excellent segment on the perils of charter schooling a few years ago.
None of this has stopped school choice from being a major policy platform for Republicans. Since COVID upended public education and the politicization of school closures, mask usage, and CRT, three states; Arizona, Iowa and Utah, have implemented universal school voucher programs which gives parents a set amount of money that they can use for their child’s education anywhere.
This has major implications for public K-12 education. Schools are already paid via attendance metrics, but that money gets more scarce as students flee public schools for other alternatives. The base product further degrades and anyone who can will take their school voucher and go somewhere else. It is sort of like watching universal health care degrade into our current healthcare system.
Even some conservative politicians understand the problem with this. Charles McCall, Oklahoma’s Republican House Speaker, was heavily criticized for his opposition to a voucher bill in that state. He opposed the bill because he represents the rural southeastern county of Atoka, Oklahoma where there are very few alternatives to public school except homeschooling and if too many parents took their kids out of public school, there wouldn’t be enough kids for the schools to continue.
But as was stated earlier, this is not an issue that only conservatives care about. The EdTech world is more and more looking to take advantage of this opportunity. Khan Academy opened their virtual Khan World School in partnership with Arizona State University to take advantage of their voucher program. Any Arizona High Schooler can apply to this virtual prep school and the fees will be paid by the voucher program.
But this story isn’t actually about students leaving public schools for private ones. Because the biggest portion of students leaving public school are now being homeschooled.
When schools shut down during COVID, parents were charged with making sure that their students were learning in Zoom classrooms. As a result, many saw just how little learning was going in, and decided that they could do better. According to the US Census Pulse Survey, homeschooling households almost doubled across the US over the last four years.
The result here is a wide number of different educational strategies being tested at the same time. The downside is that many will likely deliver worse results to students than traditional public schools. As with many things, much of the discussions around “school choice” come down to money and trust. Because of the recently stepped up culture war and the fear around CRT, republican parents are losing trust in local schools and voting to cut funding more and more often.
So school funding is somewhat in danger, and it is possible that a decline in test scores at this point will be further used as “evidence” that public schools don’t work.
But the public school systems in many states will survive the next few years, and several might even thrive. What’s more, some of the experiments being tried with education might lead to genuinely better education. Maybe Khan World School will teach us better ways to teach at a distance. Or maybe experiments with unschooling will demonstrate a replicable framework that we can use to serve the kids better.
Because the assembly line style of education that currently dominates is only optimal for a small sliver of students. Most kids don’t perform well on command, or test as well as they could, or learn at the same rate as “the rest of the class”. The main reason why the system works the way it does now is because it looked like a factory did in the 1800’s.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
We just need new frameworks that are simple enough for people to understand and hopeful enough to believe in. That has enough buy in from the diverse array of learners and educators and parents to convince enough people to try out something new.
And new things are almost always born on the fringes.
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