Ep. 207: The Monthly Debrief – August Looking to September 2020

September 25, 2020

In this episode of our Monthly Debrief series, we discuss how states are using micro-schooling, implementing regulations and more.

Robert Enlow: Hi, I’m Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, and welcome to another edition of our monthly state debrief podcast. Every month, we get together to discuss what’s going on with educational choice and educational freedom in America. We talk about states and what they’re doing to try and ensure that families have greater educational options. In this current world, we’re talking a lot about new delivery mechanisms of education, everything from pandemic pods, to learning pods, to micro-schools, to micro-grant programs. There’s this entire, and I love this word, plethora of new options out there that families are sort of using from the bottom up. Homeschooling, and we know from our polling, is on the increase. We know that people are migrating between public, private, charter, and homeschooling quite a bit. There’s a lot of movement in this COVID world as schools try to struggle with reopening and getting back together.

Along the way, parents are saying, “We’re just going to do it ourselves. We’re done with this. We’re going to try some new ideas.” And there are a lot of operators coming alongside and saying, “Great, I’ll help you out.” And that’s where the concept of micro-schools comes in. So, I guess the first question, and we’re going to talk about micro-schooling today on our monthly state debrief, is what are micro-schools? Jason, tell us what you think they are.

Jason Bedrick: Yes. So there’s no real perfect, widely agreed-upon definition, and they take multiple forms. But I would say, generally speaking, micro-schools, learning pods, they are small clusters of families that are pooling their resources together in order to educate their children outside of a traditional classroom. National School Choice Week helpfully divides these into two different groups. You’ve got self-directed pods. These often take the form of homeschools or homeschool collaboratives. These usually take place in parents’ living rooms, and the parents themselves have full control over the different curricular choices they’re taking.

Sometimes they hire a tutor on their own. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the parents are taking turns, sometimes at one person’s house or in multiple people’s houses. Like I said, it can take many, many different forms. And many of these, particularly the so-called pandemic pods, are a short-term solution to wait out the pandemic until parents feel comfortable returning to the type of schooling environment they had before the pandemic. Others are more permanent. There are organizations like, for example, Acton Academy or Prenda, that have been doing micro-schooling for years.

And that actually leads us to the second type of pod, which National School Choice Week calls a learning support pod. So these types of pods usually are parts of a network. Many of them are actually connected to a charter school or to a private school or some other sort of entity that is providing more centralized support, often with curricular materials or instructors, that sort of thing. So they can take various different forms, and they interact differently with state laws.

Robert Enlow: Before we go to the next little… You’re blowing my mind here, right? Are these public schools? Are they private schools? Are they a school? Wait a minute. How do I wrap my head, as a parent, around what the hell these things are? What are these things, if we can’t define them so easily?

Jason Bedrick: The answer essentially is yes. There is not a real clear definition yet in law. And so it can be somewhat confusing, but parents are finding their way through. I mean, what parents, I think, are really liking about this is they have a much greater degree of control over the type of learning environment their child is in. And they’ve got a whole bunch of different options out there, and there’s a lot of freedom and flexibility to customize your child’s education. So, it’s no wonder that EdChoice’s latest Morning Consult survey found that 33 percent of families say they have identified a pod that they are planning to put their children in. And then another 14 percent said that they are still looking to form a pod. So that’s almost half of families that we surveyed said they were either joining or looking to join a pod. It’s a very popular option right now.

Robert Enlow: All right. So micro-schooling is hard to define, but it’s parent driven, and it happens in a variety of different mechanisms and in different ways. So tell me some ideas of what’s going on in the states. How is it being used in the different states that we serve? Jordan, is it going on in New Hampshire and other places you’re working in?

Jordan Zakery: Sure, Robert. Yep, parents are using micro-schools as a resource during this pandemic everywhere. Interesting enough, the way states have responded to micro-schools and potential regulations with them, there’s been a difference between how states have responded. We’ll use an example, New Hampshire. Currently, they’ve relaxed requirements as far as being able to have students under a roof micro-schooling. Initially, there were some talks about needing to be licensed as a daycare. This type of language and regulation has been brought up in several states. New Hampshire responded well with the governor offering an executive order to where now parents just need to file verification forms with the Department of Health and Human Services in order to do minimal background checks on those who’d be running pods. So that’s one example of how regulations have gotten involved.

I’ll look at another state. With Pennsylvania, they have relaxed requirements as well for many of the regulations that would affect micro-schooling. For example, in the past, you wouldn’t be able to have a group of children participating under a micro-school type format for more than 90 consecutive days. They’ve relaxed that type of requirement. And their Department of Human Services has put together a plan that families that want to start micro-schools can use to register their micro-school. Part of these plans include health and safety, evacuation plans, making sure that there’s fire detection systems. I point these out as examples so you can see that, because micro-schooling is such a new phenomenon and not everyone is sure about what it is, different states have had different regulations attached to what micro-schools are and how they can conduct themselves.

Robert Enlow: Jordan, that’s super interesting to hear about how two states are looking at it and looking at it differently. Lauren, how about some of your states? How are they looking at the idea of micro-schooling, and how are they implementing the idea?

Lauren Hodge: The Carolinas are also working through what education looks like in the midst of a global pandemic. And while one would have hoped that we perhaps would be past this at this point in time, we’re not. And I think that, as we’ve talked to parents, as we’ve talked to educators, as we’ve talked with students… EdChoice just did a great polling result over what students felt as they returned back to school. The hopes that when the school year dismissed in the spring of 2020 that the fall would come around and it’d be business as usual has not proven true.

And I think that that is especially important in places like the Carolinas, where you have such tourism-based hubs. And in a time when perhaps family vacations aren’t happening, or in a time when just vacationing in the summer looks and feels different, the Carolinas had their own struggles as the pandemic went through and had hotspots that popped up, and it’s made reopening their states an especially difficult challenge to work through.

So we do see parents really kind of grasping out for what do I do? What are my options? How can I continue to make sure that my child, A, continues to learn, right? At the foremost of those parents’ concerns, making sure their child is matched where they’re at and that they continue to have educational gains. But then also the conversation of, “Well, I have to go back to work myself. So how do we do this if my traditional ed school isn’t open?” And those have been kind of conversations that have happened.
How the states are handling it, I think, is a state-by-state analysis. And similar to somewhat of what Jordan’s discussed, South Carolina’s had conversations about does this need to be regulated like a childcare center? Does there need to be a set curriculum? And I think that that is a question that each state is grappling with and working through. But the common theme, I would say, is that parents and children, they’re looking for options. They’re looking for ways to learn this fall.

Robert Enlow: I really appreciated hearing that from the Northeast and then the Southeast. And maybe we should look to the Wild, Wild West to see what’s going on out there, Jason. Where’s Nevada and Arizona on the idea of micro-schooling? In fact, hasn’t Nevada done something amazingly innovative? Or at least not the state, but a city?

Jason Bedrick: Yes. North Las Vegas, Nevada, which we talked about, I think, on our last Monthly Debrief, has actually created their own system of micro-pods that they are charging families $2 a day to access. And there’s actually even some financial support for families who can’t even afford that. But they are finding ways of serving families in their community during the pandemic by embracing this innovation, rather than trying to regulate it out of existence.

And then in Arizona, it’s not the state doing it. But just even before the pandemic, we saw tremendous growth in the micro-school sector, particularly a new entrant, Prenda. So Prenda micro-schools started in January of 2018 with one micro-school with seven students. Two years later, January of 2020, just before the pandemic, they had more than a hundred micro-schools around the state, including in some really underserved areas, like in Native American reservations and other very rural areas, serving a higher percentage of students with special needs than the traditional public school. So really doing a great job of finding and serving disadvantaged populations. Like I said, even before the pandemic, they grew from one micro-school serving seven kids to over a hundred micro-schools serving more than a thousand kids. Since the pandemic, they have grown to almost 400 micro-schools serving more than 4,000 students around the state. So parents really are flocking to that option. And that, of course, has drawn opposition.

Robert Enlow: So like all new innovations or all new ideas or all ideas coming from the bottom up sometimes, the adults in the room don’t like it when people start thinking their own way and having their own mind. And this is what’s happening right now with micro-schooling. So there are lots of attacks going on because of a variety of reasons, right, not the least of which it’s new and people don’t necessarily understand it. But there are two main lines of attack going on around the country about this new idea of educational freedom, and let’s talk about those for a few minutes. First of all, they’re going to try and do the old death of a thousand cuts through regulation and definitions. So how are they trying to do that right now around the country with micro-schooling? Jordan, you might want to talk about some of your state.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah. So we brought up the idea earlier of having to license them as a childcare center or a daycare. These add a lot of extra regulations and hoops and hurdles that they would have to go through in order to set up a facility. And part of the great thing about micro-schooling is that it’s inherently flexible for families. And as you said, death by a thousand cuts, that’s what some of these regulations are trying to do. Some regulations go as far as sprinkler systems. They go into having certain types of plans needed that take a lot of effort on the side of the family and encumber the amount of time it takes to actually set up the micro-school itself.

Robert Enlow: Jason, what about you? What are you hearing from your states about how they’re trying to regulate these new ideas?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, I would concur with that. I’ve heard a number of… I mean, these are anecdotal reports, but families who are trying to micro-school that suddenly get a letter in the mail or a phone call from some bureaucrats, either at the state level or from their school district saying, “Just so you know, you’re operating an unlicensed daycare,” and so trying to shut them down using those laws.

There is a great resource: schoolchoiceweek.com/learning-pods. Again, that’s schoolchoiceweek.com/learning-pods. And they’ve got information for every single state about how micro-schools fit in with the existing regulatory scheme. So in a lot of states, you will find particularly the self-directed learning pods can be classified as homeschool co-ops. And so if you file the right paperwork, then you’re not going to be considered an unlicensed daycare or have to go get a license to operate a daycare and have all those sorts of regulations attached to them.

And yes, look, this is not to say that there should be zero regulations on micro-schooling or homeschooling or what have you, but we have to be very cautious. Even some reasonable-sounding regulations, when you add so many of them, like you said, it could end up to death like a thousand cuts. So is it reasonable that they have an evacuation plan in the event of a fire? Certainly. But we want to make sure that this is still an option that is easy to access.

Robert Enlow: Do we require that of every home, Jason? Do we require an evacuation plan for every home-based business and every home-based entity or every place that might meet in a park? I mean, let’s say the micro-school meets in a park because they’re in Arizona, or they meet in a different place, that it has no concept. Why do we foist these ideas of inane regulations on something where they don’t need to be?

Jason Bedrick: Right. That’s certainly true. I mean, people are welcome to live in their homes without being harassed like this. And that’s why, for the most part, the homeschooling statutes avoid these sorts of regulations. I was saying that even where these things sound reasonable, when they add up, they can be quite unreasonable.

Secondly, when states are trying to step in and say, “Well, we’re going to require testing, or we want some sort of control of your curriculum,” I mean, those are clear red lines that the school-choice movement has to be prepared. Those are the hills to die on. We cannot allow the district school system to undermine the freedom and flexibility that parents are seeking in these sorts of environments. If you really want this sort of innovation, that’s the sort of regulations that would absolutely strangle it.

Robert Enlow: Lauren, are you finding some of the same attacks on micro-schools in your states?

Lauren Hodge: I think that there’s always going to be an interest in protecting and serving children. And I think that similar regulations, perhaps the well-intended, can have devastating consequences. And I think that’s where we are seeing a repeated history. In some of these states, most frequently, at least in my red neck of the woods, it’s been about regulating them as childcare centers. And I think what’s fundamentally important to recognize is that micro-schooling is just that. It’s parentally led parental choice, and it is brought to you in a variety of ways. And so long as the option remains, and so long as a variety of delivery methods to education can survive, we have a chance to not only educate and equip these children during a global pandemic, but perhaps to find a new way of schooling that works best for them.

So I think that we’re certainly seeing similar regulatory structures pop up again and again and again and again. And I think that parents are beginning to talk about this from just a very practical standpoint, like you guys had talked about. Of course, best practice would be to have an evacuation in your home, and you might even practice that with your children. But are you required to write that down and file it with the state, and are you required to review that and have a fire department come out and check that? No. So I think the common sense here around micro-schooling is really the logic to win the day, and I certainly hope that that’s what we see as we move through these very challenging times.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s exactly right. And you’ve got to remember, the definition of seat time and when we decided to do that and how many grades we needed to have, it was all decided by a group called the Committee of Ten in 1892. It’s possible that we’ve moved on a bit since then. I’m not sure we have in some areas of our world, but certainly I think in education we can.

Unfortunately, this regulatory attack is only one part of the way that people are going after micro-schooling and pods. Another thing is through public relations. And I know that, in the last few weeks, we’ve seen Prenda in Arizona get taken on by people who were opposed to it. And it’s even going on in The Arizona Republic and now the USA Today. So Jason, talk a little bit about the PR attack.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. We’ve seen this in a number of areas from anti-school-choice groups, some teachers’ unions, and now it’s making it into the mainstream press. So there was this report that came out from The Arizona Republic on Prenda micro-schools that has now been picked up by USA Today, in which they claim that quote, “Prenda exploits gaps in regulation and oversight in the hopes of growing so fast and large that it alters the industry it seeks to disrupt,” end quote. Now, I mean, one translation of that is that Prenda has found new and innovative ways of serving families, and the bureaucrats haven’t caught up yet to this way of thinking.

They compare Prenda with Uber. And I actually think this is a favorable comparison. Uber is not perfect. No human-built institution is, but they were far better than the existing system, right? Uber was much easier to access via your app. It was a lot easier to pay for Uber. You didn’t get into a taxi… Sometimes you get into a taxi cab, and only at the end of the ride, you find out they want cash and that their credit card machine mysteriously isn’t working. Even before you get into the car, you know the name of the driver. You’re able to rate the driver and see the driver’s ratings. I mean, these are all… And it’s all at a lower cost, right?

These were all things that the taxi-cab industry could have been doing, but because they had this regulatory system with medallions that raised the barrier to entry and kept competition out, the industry essentially… You had not quite a monopoly, but at least an oligopoly, and they were very reluctant to change. So when you had this new entrant come in, all of a sudden, the taxi system actually has improved. You see that taxis are now using apps, and taxis are allowing you to rate drivers and things like that. Does the same thing with Uber. What they’re really talking about when it comes to Uber, though, is once the taxi cabs caught onto the fact that a whole bunch of their consumers were switching over from taxis to Uber, they immediately turned to the regulators and said, “Hey, protect us and regulate them out of existence.”

When the regulators tried to do that, they found that Uber had already developed such a large constituency that was so happy with their superior service, that they were actually unable to get rid of Uber. I mean, they’re still trying, and they’re having some success in some areas. There’s a new law in California that may actually drive Uber and Lyft and some of these other ride-share companies out of the state. But by and large, attempts to regulate Uber to death have failed because Uber’s customers have come to their defense.

And I think you’re seeing the same thing in the micro-school realm. The people who have an interest in protecting the status quo are trying to regulate competition out of existence. And before they’re going to have the opportunity to do that, at least in some states like Arizona, I think you’re going to see so many families that are using these options and saying, “Hey, wait, this is far superior to what I was getting before,” that they are going to be the ones that rise up and protect it.

But just real quick, I know I’m already going long, I want to read one other quote to give you an idea of the sort of things they’re getting at, right? So quote, “Prenda is not a private school, a charter school or a public school. But at different times, it operates as all three, drawing taxpayer funding or support for each type of school. It teaches public and private-school students in the same classroom, which may not be legal under Arizona law.” Right? So they’re kicking up the sort of dust, and they’re saying, “What is it? It’s hard to tell.” Right? They want to make everything legible. They want everything to fit in a nice, clean box. What is the problem with some kids learning in the same room that are charter-school kids, as kids who are public-school kids, as kids who are private-school kids?

And the reason they bring this up is because Prenda is an interesting model. Prenda, in some cases, people are accessing it through the education savings account in Arizona, particularly families which have children with special needs, and they’re paying essentially out of pocket using their ESA. In other cases, they’re accessing it through a charter school. Prenda, they subcontract with an online charter school called EdKey. So some kids are getting it as a charter-school student. Now, in other cases, they’ve actually created partnerships with traditional public schools. So some kids are being counted as a public-school student, but they are in a micro-school classroom. What is the problem if these kids are all in the same classroom learning together? I mean, that’s not really clear.

So families are accessing it with a variety of different ways. There are thousands of Arizona kids that are now using the option. And this, by the way, is not something… This is something that public schools have been doing too. Public schools have been subcontracting, for example, with Florida Virtual Academy during the pandemic. We need, especially now, to find new and different ways of allowing parents to access the type of education that works best for their kid. That’s what it comes down to.

Robert Enlow: And ultimately, that’s what micro-schooling is all about, right? The idea of micro-schooling or pods or whatever we want to call it, it’s about getting… parents getting in where they fit in. It’s about getting sure that families have the opportunities for their kids in environments that work best for them and getting rid of this concept of a school building that is probably gone or a school type that’s gone. And we think that that’s what’s going to be happening in the future. And micro-schooling is one of those new ideas that’s going to take us to the future.

So we really appreciate you joining us today as a state team and on our monthly state debrief. You can always get ahold of us anytime you want at www.edchoice.org or at edchoice.org because we don’t say the W’s anymore in the world. And you can always get us on any of the podcast outlets that you can find on our engage sites. So thanks very much for joining us, and we’ll see you next month.