AFTER DECADES OF progress, learning outcomes across US public education have stagnated and declined. Between 2011 and 2019, nearly two-thirds of states saw falling scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the standardized test often referred to as the nation’s report card. The pandemic only turbocharged the drop. In 2022, Massachusetts NAEP scores were the lowest in 19 years.
With no improvement on the horizon, parents have redoubled their efforts to find educational alternatives for their children. Most families can’t afford private schools, so parents have increasingly turned to homeschooling — even in places like Massachusetts, where it has historically been less popular — and new education models such as microschools.
Microschools are a modern reimagining of the one-room schoolhouse, where 10 to 15 students work with a passionate educator. The schedule and curriculum are tailored to the needs of this particular group of students, increasing personalization and flexibility.
With an abundance of options raising innovation and bringing down prices, many more people are finding the right learning environments for their children.
Taking advantage of this unique moment will require fundamental shifts in mindset and policy. As described by Sir Michael Barber, author of How to Run a Government, it begins with clearly defining the public sector’s role in regulating, funding, and delivering education.
Regulation involves deciding the rules and creating a level playing field, something an elected public body is uniquely positioned to do. The goal should be to spur innovation by refocusing educational regulation from inputs, such as school architecture and student/teacher ratios, to outcomes, including academic quality and student safety. This helps ensure that innovations yield the most beneficial outcomes.
Some states are drafting new frameworks for alternative learning models, focusing on the outcomes that society values instead of the inputs we’re used to managing.
As for funding, government has the unique power to levy and distribute taxes to pay for social goods. It can use that power to ensure innovation and equity. Historically, education funding was locked into the conventional public system.
More recently, 13 states have passed initiatives to fund education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to direct their state tax dollars towards an educational option of their choice. This is a first step towards a marketplace of innovative options that can serve learners with a range of needs. To promote equity, the public sector can direct greater funding towards particular geographies or segments of students who it identifies as not being well served, such as special education.
That brings us to the delivery of education. Unlike regulation and funding, government is not uniquely positioned to deliver education. We don’t look to the public sector to run hospitals, grocery stores, or gas stations, so why do we look to them to run our schools? Even if some communities wish to run their own schools, we must see them as one of many options in a vibrant landscape, not a local monopoly to be protected.
Thankfully, we see early signs of transformation. Triggered by parent demand, alternatives such as microschools are launching in thousands of American communities. Unsurprisingly, the rise of new options will likely lead to a decline in conventional school enrollments and spur renewed debate about school choice.
Unless we wish to promote education monopolies, we must support a plurality of education options that are delivered by a diverse set of providers yet regulated and funded by the public sector.
The U.K., while not perfect, is an early example of this model. “Free schools,” which function like American charter schools, are publicly funded, relatively simple to open, and add to the choice landscape. They have freedom to innovate and help serve unique learner needs in a way that large conventional schools cannot.
Massachusetts has long been a leader in both public and private education. It is our duty to lead the nation in accommodating and promoting innovation, and it starts with a debate about the public sector’s unique role in regulating and funding education, while allowing many more providers to deliver it. The Commonwealth should look at parental choice as a benefit, not a threat.
Amar Kumar is the founder and CEO of KaiPod Learning, a Newton-based company that operates microschools in four states, including Massachusetts.