Unbundling: Three Policies That Would Improve Schools’ Core Education Services

Up to this point, we’ve talked about unbundling what we might call “ancillary” school services like transportation, food, professional development, and remedial education. Now, it is fair to note that thinking of these as ancillary is probably insufficient because if kids can’t get to school, they can’t do anything else. Seems pretty essential. But that notwithstanding, in this post we want to get to the heart of the matter. Can we unbundle some or all of the core academic elements of schools?

We think yes. What that might look like can vary from state to state, district to district, and school to school, but we’d like to offer three broad policy umbrellas that can facilitate it.

Course-by-Course Funding and Course Access

For years, states like Vermont and Nevada have allowed students to attend public schools part-time. Different states place different rules on part-time enrollment, from the number of courses a student can take, the type of courses they can take, the obligations of public school districts to accommodate part-time students, and more.

In more than 13 states, “Course Access” programs grant public school students flexibility to take some of their courses from outside providers. Depending on the state, students can take one or two (or even more) classes from approved outside groups. If, for example, their school’s math curriculum only goes up to Algebra II, but a student wants to take precalculus, when their classmates head to math class, that student would head to the library and take precalculus online from the local university.

In both of these cases, the traditional public school district takes the funding that it receives and subdivides it into smaller instructional units. It then grants some flexibility either to students who are primarily home- or private-schooled to take a small number of courses from public schools or students who are primarily publicly school to take a small number of courses from private providers. This is unbundling and allows schools to offer a wider spectrum of courses to students and to serve a wider spectrum of students than they otherwise would.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)

Another potential policy to facilitate unbundling is the creation of education savings accounts for students. We at EdChoice have written extensively about ESAs, so its not worth belaboring them again here. But the short version of the story is that ESAs take a student’s education funding and place it in a flexible-use spending account that they can divide between different approved educational providers.

ESAs are perhaps the most direct way to facilitate educational unbundling. Families are free to split their funding between a private school and a tutor, between a microschool and a special needs therapist, or a near infinite number of other permutations. This is the apex of customization.

Supplemental Education Funds

Students who enroll in the Epic Charter Schools in Oklahoma, a self-paced online school, get access to $1,000 in supplemental learning funds to spend on, as they put it, “supplemental curriculum, extra-curricular activities and/or educational technology.” Because online schools lack things like art classes and football teams, students can use their supplemental learning funds to purchase these from local providers. The school manages the funds, and the providers act as vendors to the school to make sure that everything is above board and accounted for, but outside of that, families have a wide latitude in how they spend those dollars.

Imagine if more schools did this. Rather than operating classes in-house that might be expensive to put on or difficult to find great teachers for, or are difficult for any number of other reasons, imagine if they simply paid for students to get that learning somewhere else in the community. They might not be able to offer every extra-curricular activity that students might want or might only have limited spots on teams for students to participate. By separating out those funds, every student who wants to play a sport can find a team to play on.

All three of these policies allow more customization of students’ educational programs. They give flexibility to families and students to find the courses that work best for them. And, they can have the added benefit of helping schools. Rather than schools having to be everything to everyone, they can focus on providing what they do best, and leaning on outside providers to do what they do best. Everybody wins.

So the question becomes, how do we get more of these programs? The short answer is for states to create course access programs, ESA programs, and the like, but the longer answer revolves around reforming credentialing and how we recognize students for demonstrating their knowledge and skills. If we look out at the landscape today, there are lots of private providers of educational services, from Kumon to Mathnasium, and lots of providers in between. The problem is that students don’t get credit for completing work or demonstrating competency with any of them. They have to go back to school and sit for a standardized amount of time in order to meet state requirements for successful completion of a course.

Liberalizing the way we recognize student learning and allowing students to “prove” that they have mastered material outside of their classroom will be central to unbundling core educational services. If everything has to flow back through the school in order for it to “count” for course credit or progress towards graduation, then options will be severely limited. Using competency-based measures or certifying private providers to assess student progress can help students learn everywhere and demonstrate that they have learned everywhere as well.

Read more from The Unbundling Series:

How K–12 Education Could Do Transportation Differently

Three Ways Public Schools Can Rethink Food Services

A New Way to Approach Teacher Professional Development and Classroom Supplies

Rethinking How We Deliver Remedial Services to Students Who Need Them