Policy considerations for microschooling: Key insights from the Manhattan Institute

May 31, 2022

“It is impossible to fully understand the status and future of microschools and related small-school approaches without appreciating the influence of the Covid era,” writes Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. 

Case in point: Sophia Ortega and her boys. 

Before the pandemic forced school closures and at-home learning, Ortega, a single mom in Buckeye, Arizona, realized that the school her boys were attending wasn’t working for them.  

“Her boys are, in her words, ‘energetic, rambunctious, and smart,’” reports Michael McShane in his paper about microschooling, published by the Manhattan Institute. “But too frequently, in their school, the first two characteristics were in tension with the third,” McShane continues.  

A friend told Ortega about Prenda — a microschool community that offers flexible learning environments which empower students to become co-creators in their education. After attending a local gathering with Prenda educators and families, she was more than a little intrigued by the possibilities these microschools offer. Prenda’s core values aligned with Ortega’s beliefs about parenting and education, and the structure of the days sounded like just the right approach for her sons.  

Yet, it was the vastly different approach to schooling that had Ortega still hesitant.  

“[B]ut the pandemic and the challenges that she faced as a single mother juggling full-time work and two children learning at home persuaded her to take the leap,” McShane reports. 

And Ortega wasn’t the only parent who made changes to their students’ education during Covid.  

  • Almost 1-in-6 students switched schools ahead of the 2020-21 school year. That was up 50 percent from the year before. 
  • Public school enrollment declined 3.3 percent — a staggering 1.5 million kids nationwide – during the 2020-21 school year. 
  • At the same time, charter school enrollment increased by 7.1 percent  — a jump of about 240,000 students. 
  • Additionally, the homeschooling category (which also includes co-op and hybrid arrangements, pods, small school environments, etc.) more than doubled in 2020-21 from the previous school year.  

“Forced by the pandemic to rethink their schedules and experiment with online learning — and given the opportunity to take advantage of existing supplemental services and create new offerings for themselves — many families were intrigued, if not excited, by the possibilities of the new and different,” Smarick reports. 

The shift to at-home learning during Covid exposed more families to individualized learning models like microschools. That’s at least one reason why The Manhattan Institute, with funding from Stand Together Trust (STT), published a series of reports on microschooling. 

While the entire series of papers is worth reading, these high-level insights can provide important considerations for policymakers, funders, thought leaders, and others as we continue to transform education to models that help each student unlock their unique potential. 

Key Insight #1: Funding should promote flexibility and innovation.  

“If funding weren’t an issue, microschooling would benefit from staying in the private sector, where flexibility is greatest,” Adam Peshek, Senior Education Fellow at STT told Smarick.  The private sector would allow school founders and leaders to make decisions related to school size, schedules, age spans, and curriculum, instead of being restricted by regulations.  

Yet, since tuition costs associated with private schools often make them cost-prohibitive to many students, Peshek said that “the best way for the government to help microschooling (while minimizing the chance of hurting it) is to provide highly flexible funding to families—that is, direct dollars that parents can use for a wide variety of educational expenses.” 

A benefit of flexible funding directly to families is that in many instances those funds can be used for traditional schooling or supplemental education like tutoring and online courses.  

These sorts of individualized educational experiences are growing more and more, thanks in no small part to innovative funders like the VELA Education Fund.  

Education innovators today “often prioritize decision-making authority and are leery of the strings that come attached to government dollars,” Meredith Olson, CEO of VELA, told Smarick. Private and public funding should promote revolutionary and outside-of-the-box approaches to education that truly allow students to discover, develop, and apply their unique gifts. 

Because they don’t think in terms of sweeping changes to education policy, innovators want room to develop and adapt programs to meet the needs of students, first and foremost, Olson said.   

Key Insight #2: Expanding microschooling in each state requires understanding the state.  

Expansion of microschooling in specific states requires a clear understanding of the regulations that influence education in the area. Sam Duell, policy director for charter schools at ExcelinEd, noted for Smarick that a range of state policies, from part-time enrollment rules to charter laws to homeschooling policies to seat-time requirements will influence how microschooling can take place in a jurisdiction.  

In Arizona, microschooling was ripe to grow because of decades of education reform that kept regulations loose instead of tight.  

According to Matthew Ladner, director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity at the Arizona Charter School Association, “the state’s minimalistic regulatory approach to new school creation — ‘if the law doesn’t say that you can’t, then you can’ — has helped cultivate a culture in which parents feel that ‘if you don’t like your options, start your own school.’”  

That minimalistic regulatory approach is important, because many homeschool parents are concerned about expanding the government’s involvement in homeschooling through new microschool regulations. This was a concern echoed among parents in Idaho, where small schools are already a common feature of the sparsely populated rural state. While microschools can offer curricula that are distinct from district schools, parents (and educators) may be leery to start or participate in a new microschool because of the frustration they may experience from neighbors in these tight-knit communities 

As Smarick says, “If policy is to help advance microschooling, advocates and policymakers must begin by understanding states’ histories and policies related to enrollment, funding, choice, and more.” 

Key Insight #3: Education reform should focus on cutting back  regulations 

Some of the more innovative and effective transformations in education eschew arbitrary standards and norms that have increasingly defined the education system in recent decades. That’s because individual potential can’t be limited by standards set by policymakers and state or district education officials aiming to produce more students who perform better than a mythical “average student.” Take a look at school dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples of why achievement in school can’t predict success in life.  

Yet, overly regulated education systems are holding back the expansion of innovative learning settings like microschools.  

In the state of New York, the microschooling community is small and likely to remain so, as dozens of regulations restrict growth.  

In a Manhattan Institute paper by Juliet Squire titled Small Schools in the Big Apple: How State-Level Policy Inhibits Microschooling and Learning Pods she notes that homeschooling families are categorized as private schools by the state of New York unless parents provide for the bulk or all of the instruction themselves, as opposed to hiring a trained tutor or instructor. 

That means homeschoolers are held to regulations governing private schools in New York, including: 

  • “instruction in kindergarten and prekindergarten to align ‘with the state learning standards that provide continuity to the instruction of early elementary grades and through grade 12’ 
  • “education in fire and arson prevention; drug and tobacco abuse; patriotism, citizenship, and human rights issues; and highway safety and traffic regulations” 
  • “the use of protective headgear during baseball games, and parental notification for the use of pesticides.” 

While these regulations are well-intentioned, Squire rightly explains that they would unnecessarily overburden small schools with compliance practices and procedures and thus limit the creation of new, innovative schools.  

These regulations in New York are some of the strictest in the country, and thus, could be seen as an outlier. They are also a cautionary tale, however, about the importance of thoughtful policy that expands freedom in education, instead of restricting it.  

And it’s not just the microschooling movement that benefits from more freedom. Reducing regulatory burdens in general can allow a multitude of education options.  

In the past few years, especially, education pioneers have only scratched the surface of what is possible in expanding individualized learning inside and outside the traditional school setting. The desire for expansion of individualized learning models is likely bigger than many realize Just look at the growth Prenda, the microschooling community Ortega switched her boys to. It began in a former schoolteacher’s living room in January 2018; today there are about 400 microschools in the Prenda community.  

That’s why leaders like the Manhattan Institute believe it’s so important to talk about how policies can reduce regulation on schools, in light of the history and education influences in each state,  and fund families in a permissionless way. Because the right policy environment really can help this nascent movement flourish.   

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