Ep. 311: Big Ideas — with Andy Smarick

March 24, 2022

In this episode of our Big Ideas series we speak with Andy Smarick, a Manhattan Institute fellow, who has recently published a series of reports on microschooling.

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 Idea series. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He oversaw the publication of a recent series of reports on microschooling. He also authored the final report in the series and that will be the subject of today’s conversation. Andy, welcome to the podcast.

Andy Smarick: I am delighted to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Jason Bedrick: All right, so before we begin, we should ask the question, what are microschools? Now, a lot of our listeners have probably heard several podcasts on microschools, so you would think maybe I could just skip that question, but what I have found is that different people actually have different definitions. There is not yet really in the policy community, one final universally recognized definition, so how in your series did you define microschooling?

Andy Smarick: Great question, so let me say this. If we keep it very simple and straightforward, just about everything you need to know is in the term, microschool, a very small school. Once you get past that, then all sorts of questions pop up, and then there can be debates about it, including, how small does it have be to be a microschool? I like to say dozens at the most, not hundreds. Some people think it has to be under 10. People have written about that. Some people say it can be as much as 80. Let’s not get too precious about this. I’m going to put in parentheses for a second something we can come back to, which is although you and I, as analysts, we need to focus on these definitional issues and categories, it turns out that parents don’t care all that much about these things. They just want good schools, but for us, it’s important.

Jason Bedrick: Right. Call it a “pandemic pod,” a “learning pod,” a “microschool,” tell me what it actually is, and I’ll tell you if I like it or not.

Andy Smarick: That’s right. That’s the last element that I want to add to this, which is a very small school, generally in the private school sector, and more like homeschooling than chartering, although as we can talk about, that’s not always the case, but generally, think of it as an emanation or a closer cousin of homeschooling than something more traditional. A thing that makes it different generally from these new breeds of some people call “pods” or “hubs” is the general idea with the microschool is it is the primary, if not the sole learning environment for the students who are part of it. Whereas most people who were taking part in pods, they were doing it after school, or before school, or on weekends to supplement what they were getting in their traditional public school, which often wasn’t very good online learning during the pandemic, so that was supplementary or complementary, whereas a microschool, a small learning environment, typically private, not always, but it is where most kids are getting the majority of their education.

Jason Bedrick: Now, microschooling has been all the rage since the pandemic for obvious reasons that we’ve covered on this podcast, but they were actually on the rise even before. I recall actually being in January of 2020 at the Microschooling Day at the Capitol in Arizona, where Prenda was touting that they had gone in two years from about, I think it was seven students, to more than 1,000. Their goal was to get to more than 2,000 by the end of the year. They ended up getting to more than 4,000, in great part because of the pandemic, so there was already this phenomenon before the pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of microschooling and then how the pandemic changed that trajectory that it was already on?

Andy Smarick: Yeah, sure. The way that I like to think about this is it’s taking even a step further back from that, which is to say that microschools are a reflection of something that is particularly American, not necessarily, but think about Tocqueville, think about civil society. It’s about individuals, communities, families, generally, but small communities trying to take control over something that’s very important in their lives. We can see this in other sectors, in Knights of Columbus or the Kiwanis Club, people getting together to solve a problem.

In schools, most people want to have a whole lot of control over what their kids are learning, so if you’re at a far end of a distribution and you don’t want very much control, or there are other things on your mind, you can think of an individual parent not having that much control if they are in a traditional public school district that has 500,000 kids, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and their kids are assigned to a traditional public school. In those cases, parents don’t have all that much say. It’s a gigantic district. They can’t go before the school board and get all that much influence. They can’t even pick what school they’re in.

When you start to move on the spectrum from that, parents get more and more control. A smaller district means that they have more democratic control. If they have school choice through some kind of means interdistrict, intradistrict, or some kind of funding from the state, then they have even more control. If you want to have even more control, just straight private schools, if you want to have even more control, you can go to homeschooling or do a blend of it. This has been going on in American history for very long time. The reason why I give this long windup is most families a 100 years ago would’ve thought of their “traditional public school” as we call it now is something that they had a great deal of control over. I mean, one-room schoolhouses aren’t just made up. Those actually existed in a whole lot of places. There were over 100,000 school districts 100 years ago.

Jason Bedrick: I’ve heard people describe microschooling as the rediscovery of the one-room schoolhouse in the 21st century.

Andy Smarick: Precisely. Even before traditional public schools, before the middle of the 19th century, a lot of kids learned at home or had private tutors, so this is something that America or some Americans always kind of did, we just have a term for it now because there are gigantic school districts and they’re private schools that are bigger, and then there are charter schools, all these different kind of categories, but really, what this is a realization that more families want to have more control over what their kids are learning.

Often, parents want to be involved in the classroom in some kind of way. They want a small learning environment, but they want it to be personal, so it’s not just all online, a small community that they can have some kind of control over, and so this had been growing, largely because homeschooling had been growing for the past, say, three or four decades, getting bigger and bigger, and often, families who are doing homeschooling just don’t want to do a single-family, two or three kids, and that’s all. They like to form units and do co-ops, maybe hire someone to do some supplementary learning, and so you can already see how the categories are blending. Is it a homeschool? Is it a homeschool co-op? Is it a microschool? Is it a private school that just happens to be very small? This was growing and growing and growing. There are these organizations like Prenda or Wildflower that had been either running schools or providing services for schools, so we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of kids probably, and then the pandemic hit.

Jason Bedrick: One area where people want to draw a line in terms of taxonomy is, while a pod is where you’ve got a number of families that come together and are working together to educate their kids, whether it’s supplemental or even full-time during the day, and a microschool has some sort of official institution backing it, and there may be a whole bunch of different pods that are in a network together.

Now, not everybody has agreed on that, but that’s whether you want to use microschool versus pod in that way, I think that is an interesting phenomena that in a number of these places, you do have just sort of individuals coming together to form one thing, and elsewhere, there is a much broader network where all of the different pods or microschools are kind of doing the same thing. They might be doing variations on a theme, but they’re all united. They might all be classical education or with Prenda, they might all have more of a self-directed approach, but within certain parameters, which I think actually brings us to the pandemic. What is it about what microschools offered that met the needs of families during those difficult times?

Andy Smarick: Control, I think. Schools just shut down in March of 2019 in most places. I hope I’m getting my… Or is it March 2020? I’m losing trajectory. 2020.

Jason Bedrick: 2020.

Andy Smarick: The 1920 school year was affected, the spring semester of it, and then for a lot of places, the 2021 school year. Families went from thinking everything was fine in January or February to having their kids home full-time with them in March and then a lot of school districts found some way to get some kind of online learning program up and running, but a lot of families realized that they were only getting maybe three or four days worth of instruction, and even those days were only a couple hours worth, and some of these families themselves were out of work, or they were working at home, and they just needed to solve this problem, and they couldn’t wait for the government to do it, the government in the form of these public schools, which were trying their best. I’m not trying to demean them in any way. These were unusual circumstances. We’d never seen it before.

But families, bless them, wanted to do right by their kids, and they had to figure out what this looks like, so if you think about it in the pod way, a lot of families were still enrolled in their traditional public school, but it was only giving them maybe 50% of what they used to get, and so there were additional hours left, or learning loss, so families started to form these pods to supplement what they had. That’s one way to think of the difference between some of these categories, pod, hub, microschool, and even online learning, or homeschooling is, are your kids still officially registered with a school, whether a public school, or a private school, meaning that it has some sort of license or certification? There are some rules that go along with it.

Often, these microschools were supplementing through pods, what they were already getting, but some other families just decided it’s not worth still being enrolled in this traditional public school or private school. We don’t like the masks. We don’t like the schedule. We are going to create something ourselves. Not because we desperately wanted to in advance, but we just have to, and then the different types of forms that took are as varied as people’s interests in the geographies. It could be three students, five students, 10. Could be in someone’s home, could be in a city building, whatever they found up, so the variation is staggering.

Jason Bedrick: Let’s actually dive right into your series. You had three different papers, one of them on Idaho, one on New York, one on Arizona. These are very different states with very different policy environments. Let’s talk about Idaho and then we’ll move to the others. What happened in Idaho? Then maybe you can explain how it differs in the other states.

Andy Smarick: Sure. I should just say a word about this in advance. We can get in more, if you want. I knew we could only commission maybe three papers along these lines, so I wanted to get states that were as different as possible across a bunch of different dimensions, rural, urban, suburban, homeschool, community size, charter law, private school, choice program, and so the ones we picked seems kind of random, but they enabled us to triangulate on what a national story might be like. Okay, so Idaho is a mountain western state. It has fewer regulations than most other places when it comes to schools, especially when it comes to homeschooling.

Jason Bedrick: They actually don’t even have a definition of homeschooling in statute. It is very broad in that regard.

Andy Smarick: Yeah. Thank you for pointing that out, which becomes very, very important for two reasons. One, unlike in New York or Maryland, or lots of other places where you have to register with the state, you have to make certain promises to the state or a district that you’re doing certain things or get certifications, in Idaho, I don’t want to be too glib about this, but you decide you want homeschool, and then you can homeschool virtually immediately.

Jason Bedrick: You’re off the grid, basically.

Andy Smarick: You are off the grid. The state Department of Education and state board isn’t even collecting data on how many kids there are, so today I couldn’t tell you how many families are homeschooling in Idaho. We could maybe estimate, but in a lot of other states, you’d look at a state Department of Education list and you know their names, their addresses, even in some cases what curriculum they’re using, so it is a low regulation state. It’s also a very rural state.

Let me mention this. One thing that I have found in studying the pandemic is in rural places, often in politically red places, places that bounce back quickly from the pandemic and their traditional public schools got back to normal, those are the places where most people didn’t feel as big a burden from the pandemic. Those are places where, oh, their public schools got rid of masks pretty quickly. They got up and running pretty quickly.

In Idaho, in lots of places, most places other than maybe two of the big, technically, they’re urban districts around cities, but not urban like New York City in terms of size, most Idaho school districts got up and running pretty quickly and without masks, so there was maybe less of an appetite to do something dramatically different than in, say, the suburbs outside of New York City or Boston or Chicago or Washington, D.C., where schools were closed for a very long time and parents were pulling their hair out saying, “We got to do something differently.” The reason why I bring this up is yes, in a lot of red places, people are more choice-friendly, they care more about liberty, but their schools got open more quickly, so the impulse to create something new wasn’t there, like it was in some very blue, very progressive suburban, exurban, or even urban areas.

Okay, the final thing to say about Idaho is because this tradition of liberty, but also the laws and regulations related to homeschooling, is that families in homeschooling are very protective of the liberties that they have, and so in this most recent session, when there were plans to do an ESA program and other things that could support microschooling, some of the biggest resistance didn’t come from anti-choice people, it came from people who were concerned that the choice movement would be infected by state control because this new ESA, this public money could get involved. Most of us think of the other way around, the establishment will fight it. Actually, a lot of the hesitation in Idaho for ESAs and other related things came from people who were quite comfortable doing homeschooling, microschooling, and they didn’t want the government or government money anywhere near it.

Jason Bedrick: New York obviously has a very different environment, very urban, blue. Schools were shut down. How did families respond to the pandemic with microschooling differently in New York than they did in Idaho?

Andy Smarick: You’re right, schools were shut down, and shut down for a very long time. There are a lot of families that have a lot of money in New York City, and so there were some microschools that got up and running, and they officially part of the private school sector. Because of New York’s regulations, pretty much if you’re going to do a program like this, you have to register as a private school, so these schools got up and running, but their tuition, Julie Squires, POINTSAT, looks a whole lot like a pretty elite private school, a bit cheaper. But we’re talking about $10,000-plus, we’re not talking about $200 per month or something, it quite significant, so these got up and running pretty quickly in New York City.

Jason Bedrick: I will note that because a lot of the reporters talking about microschools lived in New York and were familiar with their friends who are in an elite class spending $20,000 in some cases or more on a microschool, they just assumed, “This is what everybody must be doing across the country who is microschooling,” and that this is not available to most people, whereas your report in Idaho showing no, actually in very rural areas, you had people, like you said, spending $200 to do microschooling. A lot of the coverage was emanating out of New York and was, for such a supposedly cosmopolitan city, actually quite parochial in its view of what was happening in terms of microschooling, but I digress a little bit. Go ahead. How else did it develop?

Andy Smarick: Well, thank you for saying that, but let me just emphasize this because this is part of my larger intellectual policy analysis project that I’m trying to get people to realize, especially related to education, which is because state local newspapers have largely disappeared, and because we have now just had a centralization of news reporting, so many people who report on news now live in New York City, live in Los Angeles, live in Chicago, live in D.C., or in the ring suburbs.

This is a great example of how their views on what they report are shaped by what is around them. Like the old saying about a drunk looking for his keys underneath of a streetlight because that’s where the light is, so much of what has happened over the past two years, like the national narrative, reflects the fact that reporters were looking at what happened in these very cosmopolitan, often rich, often blue areas in the sense, no matter how many op-eds you read, or editorials, there was a view that every single public school was shut down, and whatever microschooling was happening was only among the rich, when in fact, not long into the 2021 school year, most schools in America were open. A lot of them went mask-free pretty early.

Now, that wasn’t true outside of New York City or outside of Washington, D.C., where all the reporters were, but the story in most of America was different than we were getting in the major news stories in what I call the “commentary industrial complex.” This is just to underscore the fact that trying to get a sense of what’s happening in America schools by just reading The Washington Post, New York Times, or your favorite blog isn’t going to do it, and so the New York story of very wealthy families paying $20,000 a year for a microschool does not reflect microschooling nationwide.

Jason Bedrick: Arizona is like Idaho, a western state, not a mountain state, a desert state, but closer to Idaho than New York, although it has a huge metropolitan area in Phoenix, but it’s a very different type of city, as somebody who’s lived in both. Arizona has something the other two states don’t have, which is a very robust school choice environment, education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships, the most students in the nation per capita in the charter school sector. How did the microschooling look different in Arizona than it did in, say, Idaho or New York?

Andy Smarick: Well, since you lived there, let me be humble about how much I know about it. I’d love to hear if this resonates with you, what I’m about to say. It feels like the categories that we need to draw, like in Idaho, New York, or elsewhere, are less fitting in Arizona because Arizona has been doing school choice for, what, 30 years now, in terms of charters, and a little less so with the private school choice programs.

Jason Bedrick: Arizona was the first state in 1997 to adopt a tax credit scholarship, first state in 2011 to adopt an education savings account, so it’s been a pioneer.

Andy Smarick: That’s right, and so that leads, and this is something that the reports kind of pointed at, but from some of my other research I’ve realized is that we need to think about private school choice programs, not just what they do the year they were passed, or two years, or three years later, it creates an environment in the state that changes behavior in important ways.

I suspect, and I couldn’t find great data on this, that just the general appetite, belief, trust in school choice, and I’m using air quotes here, in Arizona would be so much higher than in a place that has never experimented with it because people have been living with it, and so if you have online schools for 20 years and charter schools for 25 years and ESAs and tax credit scholarships, and people are accustomed to assessing schools on their own, choosing different types of schools, and I think the most important piece is mixing and matching what it means to be a school.

We used to call this a “disaggregation of schooling,” when you get some courses from Khan Academy, maybe a couple of courses from your traditional public school, maybe you do a pod on the side, but it’s just the idea that if you have money and you have the resources and time, you can build an educational experience for your family, and in Arizona, because school choice has been around for so long, and there’s this kind of pioneer-ish spirit, there’s so much more of that, so yes, microschooling grew there. It has Prenda, an organization that has been a leader on this, but it feels to me that it is less dramatic than microschooling might be elsewhere because people are accustomed to school options and small school environments and doing it on their own and feeling like that’s part of the education system. Does that sound right to you, living there?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, absolutely, it does. I should note, too, for the listeners, that the report in the series on Arizona and microschooling was written by EdChoice’s, director of national research, Mike McShane, who lives now in Ireland.

I think actually one of the most interesting things you’re talking about, the mixing and the matching, take Prenda, for example. Okay, all the Preda classrooms are between, well, the vast majority are between five and 10, they’re now experimenting with some as the large 15. The students are not all the same age, so there’s a mix of ages, a mix of, obviously, then, abilities and aptitudes and interests and they each have three parts of the day that they do together. I think one’s called conquer, one’s called collaborate, and one’s called create, but the goals that the students have are self-selected and the adult in the room, who they don’t call a “teacher,” but rather a “guide,” will represent instead of the sage on the stage, it’s the guide on the side, is making sure the students are staying on task, that the students are setting reasonably ambitious goals for themselves, encouraging them, helping them in the right direction, but it’s very self-directed.

But here’s a very interesting thing. Take a classroom of 10 students, okay, they’re all Prenda students, they’re all in the same classroom together, but five of them are charter school students that are accessing it as an online charter, but they’re in a classroom physically together with the other kids, but they are doing some work online, and the payment is essentially through the state’s charter school system.

Now, three of those students are education savings account students, and they’re actually accessing it through their ESA and they’re paying out of pocket and they may even have money left over to do some tutoring or some other things on the side. Two of those students, one, let’s say, might be using some tax credit scholarship dollars. Another one actually might be access it through a public school. There were a few places where public schools were entering into contracts with Prenda. In most of those cases, they actually had an empty classroom and Prenda set up shop inside the empty classroom and those kids are counted as a public school’s kid. The state is paying that local public school, and then they’re taking a portion of the funds and their subcontracting with Prenda. Speaking of mixing and matching sectors, I look at this classroom are these charter kids? Are they private school kids? Public? What’s going on here? You tell us, what is going on here?

Andy Smarick: Well, this is the difference between how families look at this and how analysts look at it. Part of me, who wants to run regressions and make sure everything fits regulations and statutes, say, “Oh, my heavens. That’s crazy. How do you keep order of all that?” But no, parents are like, “Well, that makes sense. It works. It’s an environment we want and we’re paying for it in different ways, so who cares if it’s kind of hard to understand on the outside?” It’s one of my favorite quotes, this is an example, and I’m paraphrasing, but the idea is that may seem unintelligible, but that doesn’t mean it’s unintelligent. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to put into categories, but it reflects what families want in different programs they can use to get there.

Let’s just linger on this point for a second, because this is really what I think is going to be the lasting influence of the pandemic and these innovations, which is a microschool, if we include pods and hubs in this as small learning environments, it could be the case that it is incorporated as a private school. It could be the case that it’s homeschool families. It could be the case that these kids are enrolled in their traditional public school or private school, but half of the time they’re doing this small learning environment. It could be the case that it’s a charter school that sets up a separate classroom along these lines. It could be the case that most of these students are enrolled in an online school, but some families decide, “Well, we don’t want to be alone, we want to come together to do this,” so there are lots of different ways, lots of species underneath of this genus or family, lots of different ways where you can create through policy mechanisms a microschool.

I’m trying to keep track of all that, but I think what is interesting is that 50 million families, because of the pandemic, 50 million kids in public schools, all of a sudden had to decide how they were going to do education in the spring of 2020. A lot of them tried pods or microschools or online learning. A lot of them just went private school or dropped out of a Catholic school or joined a Catholic school. They were forced to do something different. According to survey data, many of them gravitating back to the traditional system that they were part of now that the pandemic seems like it’s coming to a close.

But a non-trivial percentage of them want something different, want something they have more control over, and whether we call it a “pod,” a “hub,” “hybrid homeschooling,” a “microschool,” doesn’t much matter to them. They will look at the public policy programs that enable them to do this, to craft the educational environment that they want. I find that, again, as the wonk in me a little bit daunting, but sort of like the Hayek fan, spontaneous order, liberty-loving guy, I think let’s put families in charge and let’s see what they can come up with and make sure that as many kids are well-served as possible.

Jason Bedrick: Which leads to my final question, which is, how exactly are policymakers supposed to do that? On the one hand, yes, it doesn’t really matter to the parents, call it whatever you want, what they like, what they see, they want to enter into do some sort of consensual relationship with other families, or some sort of institution to do whatever you call this thing. But policymakers writing policy actually do have to figure out what to call it and how to either protect it or regulate it or fund it. There’s a bunch of questions that come up. Your report, I should mention that the final report in the series has the very exciting title, Microschooling and Policy. Listeners, I do actually recommend you go read the report if you want to learn more about how to approach this from policy perspective. There’s a bunch of different recommendations and areas of policy that are discussed. We don’t have time to get to all of them today, but let’s just talk about a few. How should, let’s say, policymakers think about this in terms of funding and homeschool and private school regulations?

Andy Smarick: Yeah, the easiest way to do this, and let’s come back to I did three or four interviews with people who are helping start or fund these kind of things and what they told me about policy turned out to be really interesting. But one commonality is that flexible funding is probably the easiest way to energize this kind of movement because we don’t want to micromanage what a microschool looks like in terms of size, curriculum. The reason why it has taken off the way it has and families like it is because they have so much control over it.

Jason Bedrick: Actually, in a way, being in a policy gray area has good for microschooling because they can just go do whatever they want, and especially because of the pandemic, a lot of policymakers are like, “Whatever, just figure it out. If you’re happy, we’re happy. Do what you got to do,” and that has given them this environment of permissionless innovation in which to innovate.

Andy Smarick: That’s right. People wanted to solve problems, and policymakers, like I’ve never seen an education before in my 20-plus years of doing this, realized that the pandemic posed problems that these big systems just couldn’t solve immediately, and so there was more appetite among more policymakers just to provide funding to families and give them some leeway to do things.

Jason Bedrick: There are libertarians in a pandemic. Oh, okay. Never mind. Go ahead. Continue. Continue.

Andy Smarick: Well, no, isn’t it amazing how difficult situations make us realize how America best solves problems? You empower people, and then it’s not like they just become hermits, they form communities to solve problems together, like Tocqueville pointed out 200 years ago.

Anyway, flexible funding in an ESA form is something that always came up with people, which is if families just have access to some money so they can use it to register for an online program, or maybe pay for the salary and benefits of a guide, a teacher who could do something, maybe pay for the rent for a facility, maybe buy books or other kinds of resources, this is different than when you and I are probably getting started in this movement, the idea of private school choice programs. It was like, no, it’s for tuition for an existing private school is how we often thought of it. That’s quite different. If the government says, “You have to spend this money at an accredited private school,” that’s different than saying, “Here’s $8,000. Spend it on this pretty expansive of list of approved education services, providers, resources.” That enables educators and parents to decide what the environment needs to look like and so they have resources to do it. That’s probably the most important thing.

Jason Bedrick: Well, it’s a fascinating report. I highly encourage our listeners to go check it out. Again, the final report is called Microschooling and Policy. You can find the whole series there on the Manhattan Institute website. We today have been joined by Andy Smarick, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Andy, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Andy Smarick: Jason, thanks for having me. It’s always a treat to talk to you.

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