CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Lizette Valles is a former teacher and librarian who runs a Los Angeles school that she believes represents a promising alternative to U.S. public education.
It has three fourth-grade students, including her son, and just one other teacher: her husband. There’s no building, so they share space in a warehouse with a race car garage and plant nursery – when students aren’t out hiking, fishing or cycling.
“We have ripped the doors off the classroom. We learn anywhere, anytime,” Valles told me, noting that she is looking for a new location so she can recruit more students for the so-called microschool. Interest is growing in these small, independently run “learning pods,” which are often operated by parents and enroll an estimated 1.2 to 2.1 million U.S. students.
Valles was among the enthusiastic would-be innovators and entrepreneurs I met at least week’s Harvard Kennedy School conference, Emerging School Models: Moving From Alternative to Mainstream. The event often felt like a pep rally for options beyond traditional school districts, where enrollment fell in the pandemic and is expected to drop another five percent by 2031.
I came to learn more about some of these alternatives at a time when parents and politicians are increasingly paying attention to homeschooling and other public school substitutes, accompanied by a rise in new networks, foundations and companies like Prenda and funds like Vela that provide growing financial and logistical support.
These options include microschools like Valles’ Ellemercito Academy, homeschooling co-ops like Engaged Detroit, “classical” options such as Haven School (focused on nature) in Colorado and Bridges Virtual Academy in Wisconsin, among others that spoke about their work.
Some are nascent and small, and they don’t necessarily have much in common. It seemed a stretch to see them as becoming “mainstream” — especially because scant evidence exists of their effectiveness in serving students, or even of how many students they enroll. And most American children — close to 50 million — remain enrolled in traditional public schools.
Still, a growing number of states – more than a dozen this year – have either expanded or started voucher programs that steer taxpayer money to these new options, which can include private and religious schools. Late last month, North Carolina became the latest state to pass a universal voucher program.
It’s not always clear, however, that this money goes directly to schools and parents: In Arizona, millions of dollars also went to businesses and non-school spending, a recent investigation found. The Network for Public Education, an advocacy group, last month published an interactive feature chronicling “voucher scams.”
And choice efforts are faltering in some parts of the country like Texas, due in large part to public support for local school systems, although Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott has called a special session later this month where lawmakers are expected to focus on school choice.
There’s also been plenty of pushback: North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has declared “an emergency for public education” in the state because of diminishing funding for it, along with the legislative push for vouchers. During a virtual panel Thursday sponsored by Parents for Public Schools, Cooper insisted that “the majority of people of North Carolina and across this country still support our public schools,” while calling complaints over so-called culture wars and indoctrination of students “nonsense.”
“We have seen an erosion [of support] and a legislature that has not only underfunded our public schools but chosen to essentially choke the life out of them,” Cooper said. “We cannot give up on public education even though some government leaders have.”
Speakers at last week’s conference, sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, offered no such dissenting views. They repeatedly urged the audience to “join the [school choice] movement,” one that Valles sees herself as part of, in her position as the California field coordinator for the National Microschooling Center, a support network launched with start-up funding from the Stand Together Trust.
An email sent to participants afterward called the conference “an engaging and motivating event for proponents of educational choice,” one reason why Michigan State University professor Joshua Cowen, who was not invited, dubbed it a “political operation disguised as an academic conference.”
“It’s not a movement,” he said. “It’s a coup, with the idea to overthrow existing institutional structures.”
I spoke to Cowen because he’s spent years researching choice options such as vouchers, and has concluded they do more harm than good and often lead to worse outcomes for vulnerable children. He sees the latest push as a way to create a product – then build up a demand for it.
“Instead of focusing on how to improve existing supply (public schools) what they’ve done is start from the premise that taking down public schools is the first, necessary condition,” Cowen told me. “Think about how this works with advertising in our daily lives: microschools, the solution you never knew you needed!”
Vouchers have meanwhile run into snags: In Florida, they often don’t cover the full cost of private school and many parents have had trouble finding space in the schools their children need or want. Yet demand for the vouchers is such that Florida parents and schools are having trouble accessing them.
At Harvard, the state’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz Jr., chalked up any snags to “growing pains,” while bashing the state’s public school system as “an employment program” for teachers and other staff members. When asked about evidence of school choice effectiveness, Diaz said he believes “the ultimate arbiter is the parent themselves.”
“To me, the answer is a system that is based on the needs of the students and families. If we do that, we’ll have a better society and a better structure.”Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the advocacy group EdChoice
Conference goers also heard from (and cheered) keynote speaker Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, who said he hoped a lawsuit over the planned opening of the nation’s first religious charter school in his state would ultimately land before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stitt called an Oklahoma state board’s approval – one being challenged by parents, clergy and education activists – a “win-win for religious and education freedom,” and repeated a popular stock line adopted by right-leaning politicians: “No parent wants to hand their kids over to a one-sized fits all education.”
Other familiar phrases spoken throughout the conference included calls for freeing students from failing schools, funding students instead of systems, supporting parent and family rights and fighting so-called “woke indoctrination.”
Much of what I heard dovetailed with conclusions in Cara Fitzpatrick’s exhaustively researched new book, “The Death of Public Schools: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America.” In it she notes that conservatives are aiming to both “radically redefine public education in America,” and “use public dollars to pay for just about any educational option a family might envision.”
Dissent over choice options comes at a time of much hand-wringing in both political parties over how to improve lagging test scores and the country’s overall education performance. During a conversation with Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute this week, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan lamented a lack of bipartisan support for education initiatives, while repeating his oft-proclaimed dismay for a “one-size fits all” approach.
Duncan, who served under President Obama, also acknowledged that many parents consistently say they like their children’s schools, a conclusion supported by recent polls.
“It’s not a movement. It’s a coup, with the idea to overthrow existing institutional structures.”Joshua Cowen, Professor, Michigan State University
Beyond the underlying politics, conference speakers pushed for removing obstacles to expanding microschools, by finding physical spaces for the schools and getting around what they described as a frustrating maze of regulations that prevents them from serving more children.
Bernita Bradley spoke passionately about ways she’s helping parents via Engaged Detroit, which offers support and coaching for homeschooling parents. “Traditional education has not worked for our children,” Bradley said, calling it “punitive for Black students.”
Choice programs “have to be based on what parents want,” said speaker Robert C. Enlow, president and CEO of the advocacy group EdChoice. “To me, the answer is a system that is based on the needs of the students and families. If we do that, we’ll have a better society and a better structure.”
Valles, meanwhile, envisions a new building with room for 10 students who, in addition to learning math and reading skills, might spend a day hiking, fishing, landscape painting or simply lying on the ground listening to the sounds of nature.
“A lot of people want this for their children,” Valles told me. “Microschooling offers a different pathway. …The questions it asks have more to do with what brings your child joy, peace, excitement and creativity, rather than rigidity, regurgitation and standardization.”