As schools begin to tentatively reopen in parts of the country, many are wondering what has changed, what the fallout will be and how the K-12 has evolved as a result of the pandemic. These are very broad questions, yet they are important for those involved with our education system, from parents to philanthropists to service providers.
I had a chance to check in this week with three experts: Robert Enlow (president and CEO of EdChoice), Nina Rees (president of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) and Kathleen O’Hearn (vice president of Policy Advancement at the State Policy Network).
As I recently reported, each of these organizations released a new state-by-state report covering everything from the likelihood that innovations such as learning pods would become permanent, to the latest options for parents when it comes to choosing their children’s education and changes in the legal climate for school choice. I asked our experts to share what is important for us to know given all the challenges the K-12 system has faced over the past year. Here’s what they said:
1. What was your main take-away from the most recent state-by-state education-related report?
Robert Enlow: Going big is the way to go. Expansive choice bills are passing in states like West Virginia and New Hampshire, which previously had not had too much success on that front. Other states are aggressively seeking to expand their existing choice programs with more funding and more access to more families.
Nina Rees: There was relatively little change in our rankings since last year because the pandemic halted state legislative work in nearly every state. However, two things are worth flagging: first, states with the strongest charter laws are a mix of seasoned charter sectors and states with newer laws, which means newer states are learning from the older ones and starting out with stronger laws.
Also, states with the highest charter school enrollment growth during the pandemic were those that allowed non-district authorizers to open charter schools, those that were open to greater innovation and those that did not have restrictive caps.
Kathleen O’Hearn: Given the massive disruption to education caused by the pandemic, parents are hungry for more options to educate their children. One innovation that arose during this time has been the creation of learning pods. A learning pod is a small group of children who come together to learn and socialize. Learning pods are organized by parents, who take turns teaching or may even split the costs and hire an instructor. No two pods are alike because they’re based on families’ specific needs. As learning pods become more popular, government is stepping in to regulate them, a move which could create more harm for students than good. When SPN did a 50-state analysis with researcher Jonathan Butcher in November 2020, we found 19 states have imposed or were considering regulations on pods that reduce families’ ability to launch or access a learning pod. States with these threats are responding by offering legislation to protect this new innovative approach to education.
2. What are the biggest opportunities you see for education choice in the rest of 2021?
Robert Enlow: For program growth in states, look to Florida, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Montana, Idaho and Indiana to name a few. Also the continued conversation about hybrid homeschooling, microschooling, pod learning and other “new” ways to deliver education could lead to more opportunities to fundamentally change education in years to come.
Nina Rees: We see tremendous opportunities for charter schools in this legislative session in Alabama, Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming, plus West Virginia has already enacted legislation that improves its law by allowing for a statewide authorizer. We are also pleased to see legislatures in Tennessee and South Carolina channel additional COVID relief dollars to charter schools that are seeing enrollment spikes. Finally, the latest round of federal COVID relief funds opens the door for further discussions at the state level around the topic of school choice in states with choice friendly governors.
Kathleen O’Hearn: 2021 has the potential to be the biggest year for school choice reforms in the last 10 years. The pandemic has created a window of opportunity unlike any other. Surveys show that parents are more open to change than ever before and lawmakers are paying attention. For example, the West Virginia legislature just sent a bill to the desk of Governor Justice that would be the most expansive Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in our country. SPN and the Network are working in at least 20 states to expand choice in their legislative sessions right now.
3. What is the one big lesson you think we should apply going forward based on what we’ve learned during the pandemic about K-12 education?
Robert Enlow: The learning environment of tomorrow was launched by the pandemic of today. The pandemic revealed a lot of things about the current education system that look unfair, inefficient and ineffective. This public understanding of the system can lead to some new and diverse coalitions calling for fundamental change to the way we currently deliver K-12 education in this country. People now see that education can be different and they will demand that education be built more intentionally around the students needs rather than making the student conform to the education system.
Nina Rees: That every school should operate like a charter school. Charter schools were able to pivot to remote learning with greater agility thanks to the freedom and flexibility they have but also because they are led by individuals who are committed to meeting the needs of their students and not those of adults.
Kathleen O’Hearn: Markets are in everything, even in one of the most government-run systems in the country. The proliferation of parent-led change via education pods and expanded virtual options fulfilled a significant unmet need. They sprung up because parents were motivated to educate their kids, even if it meant charting a new course. We should respect and harness this energy and innovation moving forward, while being mindful of efforts to undermine or threaten parental freedom. Now is the time to work toward an education system that serves American children and families better. Parents and lawmakers are more ready than ever, and those of us in the ideas space must come forward with reforms that will help us chart a better course for our education system.
There are many other topics for us to cover about what’s changed as a result of the pandemic and overall climate for education in the country. Stay tuned: we’ll be talking about children’s mental health, private schools, unions and much more over the coming weeks.