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Springing forward on educational opportunity

Parents in more states gain new choices in education

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders signs a school choice bill into law on March 8 in Little Rock, Ark. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew DeMillo

Springing forward on educational opportunity
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The pandemic forced a reimagination of education that continues to unfold. As schooling was interrupted for two and sometimes three years, parents discovered creative ways to cover gaps in their children’s impromptu remote learning. Some found new learning environments that were better suited to their children. Many others sought such alternatives. Now, innovations in policy and instruction that give parents more options are gaining momentum across the country. Midway through the spring of 2023, educational opportunity has already leapt well ahead of previous years’ progress.

Fourteen governors promoted parental choice in education during their annual state addresses in early 2023. Their proposals have taken a variety of forms, but most noteworthy are universal education savings accounts (ESAs). In the first three months of the year, four states have already enacted universal ESAs.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law on March 27 that will make ESAs available to all students in the state. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders signed legislation creating universal ESAs in early March, just two months after she took office. Iowa and Utah enacted similar policies back in January. That makes a total of six states with universal ESA laws on the books, including West Virginia and Arizona, where policy was enacted prior to this year. About 12 percent of the student population across the country will be eligible to access an ESA as a result.

These policies are ground-breaking in two important respects. First, ESAs let parents direct their child’s state per-pupil funding to a wide-range of educational options without restriction to traditional school models. Parents can also combine options as they see fit. Second, the universal aspect of ESAs means that all families can participate. Universal ESAs represent a new way of thinking about educational financing in which money is directed to the student rather than the system.

A one-size fits all educational model wasn’t working well even before the pandemic.

One of the ways parents can use an ESA is to finance microschooling or learning pods, an innovative educational option that spread rapidly during the pandemic. Organized by parents, pods are small groups of students learning together under the direction of a team of parents or a teacher hired by parents. In a February 2023 monthly poll by EdChoice/Morning Consult, 10 percent of parents said they were participating in a learning pod and another 20 percent said they were interested in joining one.

The model is versatile and a variety of supporting resources have emerged to help families with a range of needs get started. Microschools can be organized independently as a multi-family homeschool, in conjunction with a partner such as a church or nonprofit, or with a provider network like Prenda or Acton Academy.

Microschools and learning pods are attracting teachers as well. If schooling during the pandemic was hard on parents, it was also exhausting for teachers. Individual teachers were at the mercy of district-wide decisions, and some were ready for a change. Teachers who turned to learning pods enjoy the freedom to use their professional skills to direct student learning. Pods’ smaller environment allows closer relationships to students as well as parents. Parents and teachers together commit to a shared educational vision that is responsive to specific students’ needs. That direct relational commitment between parents and teachers recovers an important element of the educational enterprise.

A one-size fits all educational model wasn’t working well even before the pandemic. The disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic showed that there are a variety of other ways to approach education. Innovations at the policy level and the instructional level are expanding possibilities for parents to exercise their responsibilities and for teachers to steward their gifts. That builds hope for students to be given greater potential to engage their gifts and responsibilities in the future.

Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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