By Kerry McDonald, the Velinda Jonson Family Education Fellow at State Policy Network
Despite a return to normalcy in most district schools across the country after nearly three years of pandemic disruption, many students are not returning to these schools. The Wall Street Journal reported in January that district schools have lost more than one million students since 2020, and some areas continue to see precipitous enrollment declines.
Enrollment in the Chicago Public Schools, for example, is down 10 percent since 2019, or nearly 37,000 students. More than 90 percent of those students are from low-income households. According to the local Chicago PBS affiliate, “a significant number of low-income families of color are choosing to leave the district, opting for private and charter schools.”
Families in all states are seeking broader education choices, and many are exiting district schools for other options. This process can be aided by school choice policies that enable families to access education funding, and more of these policies are being introduced and implemented in states across the country. But as these policies get implemented, there remains a gap between parental demand for new education options and the supply of such options.
This gap could be prolonged and exacerbated by burdensome state and local regulations that can prevent entrepreneurial educators from launching or scaling new and innovative learning models, including microschools, learning pods, hybrid homeschools, low-cost private schools, and other types of decentralized learning communities. I highlighted several of these regulatory barriers in my SPN report last fall and offered seven recommendations for policymakers to consider to encourage education entrepreneurship and expand the supply of more learning options.
In 2022, SPN partners in five states, including Utah, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, made it a priority to support and catalyze education entrepreneurship, and they are continuing those efforts this year.
In Utah, the Libertas Institute is working to help reduce regulatory barriers by addressing zoning and occupancy restrictions that can create frustrating and costly hurdles for aspiring founders. “These entrepreneurs are getting the worst of both worlds,” Libertas’s Jon England told me in an interview for Forbes. “They have to put their schools in places like strip malls or office buildings, while also having to add the really restrictive educational occupancy rules. We want to allow things like microschools to be allowed in residential zones while not facing burdensome occupancy rules.” During this year’s legislative session, SB166, a bill to recognize microschools and remove regulatory barriers, was introduced, passing committee with a 5-1 vote. The Libertas Institute was instrumental in pushing this bill forward.
Libertas is also working to connect education entrepreneurs with each other and support them as they launch and grow their programs. They have created a statewide association of these entrepreneurs to provide opportunities for them to gather and share. Libertas is “uniting people as well,” said Paul Tanner, cofounder of CHOICE Acton Academy in Bountiful, Utah on a recent episode of my LiberatED podcast. “It’s been really nice to get together with other microschool founders and say, Hey, what can we do here? How can things change? There’s a lot of good things coming up for microschools in the state of Utah.”
Another state that is a leader in helping to spur supply of new, low-cost education options is Mississippi. Through Embark, a project of Empower Mississippi, director Elyse Marcellino is finding new and prospective microschool founders throughout the state and fostering community and knowledge-sharing through regular meetings and workshops. Microschools are intentionally small, lower-cost, mixed-age learning environments that typically offer a highly-personalized curriculum and often embrace non-traditional methods related to school structure, staffing, and scheduling. Embark is providing microgrants to eligible founders while working with the National Microschooling Center to help launch several new Mississippi microschools this year.
“Embark is focused on accelerating new school growth in Mississippi,” Marcellino told me recently in our podcast interview. “We do that by finding, guiding and investing in new school founders. And I think that word accelerate has always been important to us from the beginning. We believe that there are people out there who have great ideas and are education entrepreneurs ready to act, but there are a lot of obstacles that can get in the way. And so we wanted to figure out how to shorten that the distance between having that idea and actually opening your doors.”
Some Mississippi microschool founders, such as Donna Akers in rural Pontotoc and Stephanie Harper just outside of Jackson, recently opened their doors. Their programs continue to be in high demand, inspiring more entrepreneurial educators to open additional microschool programs.
In West Virginia, activating supply of education options is crucial to the successful implementation of Hope Scholarship, the state’s new, nearly-universal Education Savings Account (ESA) program that places approximately $4,300 in education funding into the hands of almost every school-age child to use as the family chooses. One West Virginia microschool founder, Michael Parsons, launched a Montessori-inspired microschool in Charleston. On my podcast, Parsons explained that the biggest problem with Hope Scholarship is that it doesn’t go far enough, and he is eager for that program to be expanded to all West Virginia students.
The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy is helping to galvanize education entrepreneurs like Parsons and facilitate the introduction of new microschools in the coming year, through an outreach campaign and regional entrepreneur workshops. “The momentum for microschooling in West Virginia is an immensely promising development for this state, and it’s an indication that individuals in West Virginia recognize not only the problem, but more importantly, the solution,” said Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute.
In New Hampshire, as in many other states with new ESA programs, only a fraction of the students eligible for the school choice program are currently using it. This may due in large part to scarce supply of education options from which families can choose. While momentum is building for new programs, and founders are steadily creating new microschools and learning centers in the Granite State, education entrepreneurs continue to encounter various regulatory hurdles that could slow their progress.
My article for New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett Center exposed some of these hurdles, along with possible policy solutions to make it easier for decentralized educational models to thrive. In
2023, the Bartlett Center will be focused on stimulating the supply of new learning models through outreach and conference programming, as well as identifying and helping to remove regulatory barriers.
Finally, Massachusetts has long been a leader in creating innovative education models, but is not as good at retaining them. This was the point I made in my recent Pioneer Institute paper highlighting education entrepreneurship in the Bay State. In 2023, Pioneer will be spotlighting more entrepreneurial educators in the state through webinars and on its popular Learning Curve podcast. Pioneer also plans to draw attention to some of the policy recommendations for reducing regulatory burdens for education entrepreneurs. “The states that are attracting entrepreneurs with new learning models are those that have at least begun to introduce some of these recommendations,” said Pioneer Institute Director of School Reform, Jamie Gass.
In 2023, more state partners are eager to understand and encourage the growth of bottom-up education solutions in their areas. The Nevada Policy Research Institute, the Kansas Policy Institute, the Mackinac Center, the James Madison Institute, the Thomas Jefferson Institute and the Virginia Institute for Public Policy will be connecting this year with local education entrepreneurs in their respective states and exploring new ways to promote entrepreneurship and reduce regulatory burdens.
More families are seeking education options beyond an assigned district school. This is occurring both in states with robust school choice policies as well as in states without such policies. The key to satisfying rising parent demand for district-school alternatives is to increase the supply of these alternatives by encouraging greater education entrepreneurship and innovation. Supporting founders and removing regulatory roadblocks are priorities for many SPN partners, as they help to pave the way for an entrepreneurial burst in 2023 and beyond.
Kerry McDonald is the Velinda Jonson Family Education Fellow at State Policy Network. She is also a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, host of the LiberatED podcast, and author of the book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.