Ep. 220: Big Ideas – “Protecting Learning Pods” with Jonathan Butcher

November 10, 2020

Jonathan Butcher joins us to discuss is report, Protecting Learning Pods: A 50-State Guide to Regulations Threatening the Latest Education Innovation. He explains learning pod regulation concerns and more.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m grateful to be joined by Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation Center for Education Policy. He’s the author of a new state policy network report titled, Protecting Learning Pods: A 50-State Guide to Regulations Threatening the Latest Education Innovation, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Jonathan, welcome to the podcast.

Jonathan Butcher: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: Our pleasure. So, we’ve been talking a lot about micro-schools and learning pods and parent pods and pandemic pods, and the other 50 names that they have. Before we get started, just remind our listeners what are these and how particularly are learning pods and micro-schools different from each other.

Jonathan Butcher: That’s a great question because all of this has developed just in the past few months, making the definitions of these things somewhat fluid. I think what we can do for the purposes of this report and describing what we found in terms of the research is, separate the two ideas of a micro-school and a learning pod. With a micro-school, such as the Acton schools that are based out of Texas or even Prenda, which is based out of Arizona. There usually you have an organization that serves as a private school and the students that are attending the small group formats of these, the actual micro-schools themselves will then be private school students. Typically the parents will pay a fee and they’re paying a tuition or something similar, right? And so that will constitute a micro-school. Now, with a learning pod, as we’ve seen over the past six months during the pandemic, as schools have closed down, parents have taken the initiative to put their children together with either other children in the neighborhood or other children in their child’s school.

And they meet in small groups, sometimes using the district’s e-learning platform, sometimes using curriculum that they’ve chosen themselves, but otherwise they’re getting together apart from any other group, like a micro-school operator, right? They’re doing this on their own. And sometimes they’re doing it without registering as homeschoolers, right? They’re doing it as a solution that may only last during the pandemic. Although, as we have seen, some families are thinking about doing this for the long term. Between interviews that we’ve had with families doing learning pods now, and as we hear about more large districts that are planning to remain closed in person learning. So again, with a micro-school, generally you’re talking about private school students. With learning pods you have a bit of a homeschool plus operation going. And I was talking with Kelly, the founder of Prenda out in Arizona. And he said to me that these ideas do kind of overlap. But this distinction I think is a good way to describe the landscape as it sits right now.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So how do state and local regulators treat micro-schools and pods? I mean, are these private schools, are they homeschool cooperatives? Are they just unlicensed daycares? How is the state looking at these arrangements?

Jonathan Butcher: Yeah, all of the above. I think there’s examples of all of those. I think before the pandemic we had homeschoolers meeting in groups for at least part of the day and calling it a co-op. Micro-schools existed before the pandemic as well. And again, those usually satisfy what lawmakers are looking for because the students are generally private school students. What’s happened during the pandemic though, is that as parents have been meeting together in small groups, we’ve seen Department of Health and Human Services or department of child services in different states begin to look on these small gatherings as in-home daycares. Now what’s significant, one of the many significant things is that usually in a childcare or a daycare situation you’re talking about children who are not school aged. And what appears to be going on in states like Maine, Pennsylvania, even in Michigan, is that the regulators are looking at these school aged gatherings of students and saying, “Well, let’s take the rules that would apply to at-home daycares and either apply them, and so require that families get a license or suggest that at some point in the future it might be required.

Jason Bedrick: Right, so in other words, in most states their daycare statutes apply to children that are infants through let’s say age three to five, depending on the state. But here some state regulators are now using those statutes to say go to a family that has a bunch of kids that, several families that have gotten together and their kids maybe ages eight through 14, and they’re getting together in a pod and the regulators look at this and say, “I think this is a daycare and you’re not licensed. And therefore you’ve got to jump through these certain regulatory hoops in order to be in compliance.” Is that right?

Jonathan Butcher: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I mean, we’re seeing that, remember what’s important is that in most states lawmakers are not in session right now. And so you don’t have lawmakers able to look at legislation that may align learning pods with say home schools, private schools, charter schools, et cetera. And so the regulators have stepped in and you know, it’s not a big surprise, right? Because a lot of this kind of overlaps with the COVID idea of meeting in small groups, and we just came out of quarantine and that kind of thing.

And they’ve kind of looked around the regulations that may apply and saying, “Okay, it looks like we need to look at these groups of now school-aged students and say, ‘Okay, you need to either register as homeschooler or get a license for an in-home daycare.'” Or in some isolated spots, New Hampshire is one, Alaska is another, there’s evidence from agencies there that they’re saying, “No, we are not going to add additional rules right now.” But in other places like Maine—of course right next door to New Hampshire—they are saying, “Look, if you’re meeting in a small group and you’re using the district’s material, their virtual learning platform, why then you’re going to be subject to licensure.”

Jason Bedrick: Now, your report quotes two policy experts, Carrie Lucas and Charlotte Whelan, who stated, “In practice many of the regulations imposed on childcare centers and family care providers go far beyond ensuring safety and wellbeing. They are prescriptive and limiting for facilities.” What kind of regulations are they talking about? Which ones are the most concerning to you?

Jonathan Butcher: I think some of it would be the ratio between the pupil and adults, because in the setting with small children they have numbers on how many adults they need to have a group of six or nine or 12 infants or toddlers. They take in similar numbers here and applied it to school-aged children now, which are numbers that are a smaller ratio then in most public school teacher pupil arrangement. So take Colorado for example. Colorado had this sort of two steps forward,, one step back executive order from the governor where he said, “All right, we’re going to temporarily suspend certain requirements for childcare arrangements in existing licensed childcare centers.”

And he made the adult pupil ratios slightly larger, but even so it was nowhere near the average size of a classroom in a public school. I mean, it was probably half the size. And so when you’re looking at putting these kind of arbitrary numbers on how big your learning pod can be, while the assigned school district is closed. That’s something that I think, those of us that support school choice in all its various forms should say, “Wait a minute, you know, this feels arbitrary and it feels like it’s not an appropriate fit for what parents are trying to accomplish now.”

Jason Bedrick: And it seems that they’re taking a statute that’s designed for one particular population and then just applying it to an entirely different population?

Jonathan Butcher: Exactly, exactly, right.

Jason Bedrick: So in a view you looked at all 50 states and what the regulatory environment is, which states are getting this right? Which ones are the most friendly to learning pods?

Jonathan Butcher: Based on the early returns I think the statement from New Hampshire’s commissioner of education is encouraging. He did an interview with the homeschool association there, the Granite State Educators, and it’s available on their website. That was positive about pods. I think even what came out of Colorado is at least a step in the right direction. Again, because the legislature’s not in session, it’s hard to say that any state really has passed any, because no state has passed legislation to say, “We’re going to allow learning pods and here’s what’s it going to look like.” I think the best we’re able to hope for right now are state agencies, not trying to limit the formation of learning pods in the first place. I think what’s most concerning are the states that have already begun to clamp down. So in Florida it’s not the state lawmakers that are the concern, but local districts. For example, Broward County issued a statement saying that, “Unless a learning pod meets certain conditions, again, surrounding childcare, they may be operating illegally.”
And that was sort of an ominous warning at the end of that statement. In Massachusetts the governor issued again waiver similar to what was happening in Colorado, But he also at the end of his note, so that parents cannot exchange money between themselves, say to cover the cost of food or to help cover the use of a facility or a home or something like that. So on the one hand, what they did in Massachusetts appears to be a step towards allowing afterschool programs to offer learning pods to school-age children. But at the same time, it’s limiting what parents can do. Because again, parents can find all sorts of ingenious solutions here and learning pods, being one to solve a real problem, right? They’re trying to get themselves back to work.

They’re trying to continue their child’s learning and they’re trying to make use of whatever resources are available. So anytime a state comes out and says, “Well, we’re going to allow you to solve this problem, but you’re going to have to ask permission under certain circumstances.” That’s what I think those of us that believe that we shouldn’t have to ask permission before we do what’s best for our family should be concerned about.

Jason Bedrick: And what are the Massachusetts regulators? What’s their rationale they’re giving for why they would prevent parents from pooling their resources together, or for, one parent is going to provide lunch for eight kids in the neighborhood and the other parents are just going to give them money. Why get in the way of that?

Jonathan Butcher: Yeah, it’s hard to say. I don’t know if I can speak to their motivations. In talking with Jamie Gass at the Pioneer Institute, he said that Massachusetts has this way of making a couple of good decisions to promote quality learning, while at the same time also restricting that limitations there on charter schools being one. I think what’s happening now with pods being another. I think certainly in a place that’s going to be union heavy, such as the Boston area. If you take Fairfax County in Virginia, there the district has said that teachers can be a part of a learning pod so long as the children in that pod would not otherwise be in their class in the school.

If school was open for in-person learning. That if Fairfax of course is the same place that’s actually opening their school buildings for paid daycare services, but they’re not opening the school buildings for classroom activities. So I think these are the kinds of things that we need to be watching for. Unions, as you know, Jason you know and uncovered, unions are well aware of what’s going on here and are going to be watching this closely as well as what’s happening with micro-schools.

Jason Bedrick: So you’ve already named a number of states that you find concerning. Are there some other states out there that are doing things that are concerning you on the regulation front?

Jonathan Butcher: Yeah, I think Maine and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was concerning because they were saying that you could form a pod of a certain size so long as you had certain procedures in place like an emergency evacuation plan for a home or for the building that you were in. The phrase at-home visits has come up in places like Pennsylvania, as well as South Carolina, not to mention as well as Connecticut. Although in Connecticut it appears that some of the groups that are helping with learning pod formation are doing these at-home visits themselves. So it appears to be voluntary at this point, but that is something, this idea of an at-home visit that should perk any homeschooler ears up and anyone who fears that we’re taking this learning pod idea in steering it more towards the at-home daycare regulatory environment, instead of what really should be something that promotes a flexible learning option.

Jason Bedrick: So state legislatures are going to be coming back into session soon. And I imagine that there are a number of legislators across the country who are going to be interested in protecting the right of families to engage in these sorts of learning pod situations without excessive government interference. So what would your advice be to these policymakers who want to protect the learning pods and what sort of steps would you recommend that they take?

Jonathan Butcher: Well, this is a great opportunity for that. I would say for one, I would keep learning pods free from the traditional at-home daycare requirements that are usually applied to gatherings of small groups where the children are not school-aged. I don’t think that the adult child ratios should be the same. I think things like zoning requirements for homes and things like that should not be applied. Likewise I would be very careful with the healthy homeschool laws that exist in many states. I think rushing in to try and expand those. I would pause and make sure that we are aware of what the homeschool families and advocates there feel like they need before we go and try to change them. I think that we can design a way to dovetail learning pods with existing charter school, private school, education savings account, homeschool laws, so that one doesn’t intrude on the other overlap with the other.

I think some basic things about not requiring small learning groups to register as a private school, especially if the private school regulations are heavy. As you know, like in New York, in New York city I would say, saying that these learning pods, they can simply be considered homeschool arrangements for groups. And not require additional burdens on them for reporting or registering or anything else that wouldn’t be otherwise required for homeschoolers. And they can also do things like waive the deadlines for signing up to homeschool, especially in places where the district schools are still close to in-person learning. So I think it’s more about protecting learning pods from policies that would apply to a different policy area, than necessarily trying to create something new or add to an existing school choice law.

There may be valid ways to do that. And there may be States that have an appetite for that. We always want to see innovative ideas. Parents should be looking for states that want to create new options, but at the same token we don’t want to step backwards over what’s already there and healthy. And I don’t think we need to do that. I think if we make the priority, keeping at-home daycare rules away, we can count that as a success.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation Center for Education Policy. His new state policy network report is titled, Protecting Learning Pods: A 50-State Guide to Regulations Threatening the Latest Education Innovation. Jonathan, thank you so much for joining our podcast today.

Jonathan Butcher: Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.