November 2, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

The COVID-19 pandemic has required extraordinary ingenuity and flexibility in seemingly all walks of life—from healthcare to the workplace to restaurants and beyond. For millions of families, though, perhaps nothing has upended daily routines as significantly as trying to adjust to the educational needs of their kids—with parents finding themselves double hatting between day job professionals and part-time principals.

But even as states across the country relaxed compliance requirements for public schools this spring and fall, union-backed interests have declined to offer such grace to parents. Indeed, rather than working cooperatively with parents who have scrambled to organize grassroots learning opportunities for their kids, much of the education establishment launched an opposition blitz to undermine them. 

Fortunately, a new report from Heritage Foundation scholar (and Goldwater senior fellow) Jonathan Butcher helps call attention to the tactics being used to suppress COVID-era learning models like “microschools” and “pandemic pods”—groups of parents and instructors organizing outside the traditional public schoolhouse model—and provides a roadmap for policymakers to follow to ensure that educational innovation isn’t stifled by political protectionism.

As Butcher highlights in Protecting Learning Pods: A 50-State Guide To Regulations Threatening The Latest Education Innovation, various states have enacted pieces of the unions’ wish list, including instituting licensing requirements on parents who help organize a pod, capping enrollment in the pods, and leveraging zoning laws to impede their formation.

In addition to alerting parents and policymakers of the worst offending states via an interactive map, however, Butcher also lays out a host of recommendations about what states can do to avoid regulatorily smothering learning pods. Among his recommendations:

  • State officials should not impose new pupil-staff ratios specific to learning pods. Waivers to existing child care requirements should be made permanent for pod families.
  • State officials should allow multi-family learning pods to operate as multi-family homeschool arrangements.
  • If there are deadlines by which homeschool families must register to educate their children at home, state lawmakers should waive such deadlines when public schools are only offering virtual or hybrid instruction.
  • Policymakers should not apply at-home daycare regulations such as pupil-staff ratios, zoning requirements, emergency plan requirements, or similar rules to learning pods.

The hostility to pods is perhaps unsurprising, as they represent yet another crack in the district-union monopoly over the provision of K-12 education and the receipt of taxpayer funding—especially as reports increasingly suggest that districts have shed massive numbers of students during the course of the pandemic to other education arrangements, from homeschooling to charter schools, to instruction funded by education savings accounts.

But the financial self-interest of school districts and teachers unions must not be allowed to come at the expense of the educational flexibility that students and families—especially those most disadvantaged—so desperately need. Indeed, the thinly veiled efforts to market these new regulations as a service to public safety might ring slightly less hollow had unions not already overplayed their hand and made clear that their aims are political, not educational.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute. He also directs Goldwater’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy.

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