A month into the school year, American K-12 education is, well, in flux. Just as the COVID-19 crisis has changed everything in our society — including national politics, as when Donald Trump fell victim on October 1 thus upending the presidential campaign — education, too, has been changed. And that change is already affecting spending patterns in an enormous sector of our society; in 2017, the budget for K-12 schooling totaled $739 billion.
Yet today, many parents, and other taxpayers, are wondering what they’re getting for their money. According to data collector Burbio, only about two-thirds of the nation’s schools are fully open for in-class instruction.
For instance, in New York City, where the schools closed in March, reopening has been spotty and subject to change on short notice. As New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz tweeted on September 30, “Two of my kids are in school! Every single parent made the ‘I hope they enjoy their one day of school’ joke at drop-off.” Similar stories of confusion, even chaos, can be told about other school systems, large and small.
Yet as we peer through the fog, new solutions loom ahead. One such is “education pods,” in which parents pool their resources to create micro-schools for their children. Pods are, in effect, group-tutoring programs and are obviously costly — and thus beyond the reach of many parents. Moreover, pods raise concerns about everything from equity, to quality, to liability.
Yet these pods, also known as learning pods, are becoming institutionalized, at least in some places. As a Washington Post headline last month put it, “Love or hate them, pandemic learning pods are here to stay — and could disrupt American education.” We can quickly observe that disruption is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one’s point of view.
Indeed, as we think about education pods, we can see that, in terms of functionality, they differ little from home schools. And home schooling, in the aggregate, is a substantial enterprise; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, homeschooled children number about 1.7 million.
So now, it seems fair to say, pods have given the home-schooling movement a boost. To be sure, the optics of pods and homeschooling are different: pods are seen as a yoga-mom phenomenon, while home schools are seen as conservative and Christian. And yet if the bottom line is that kids are not in the public schools, then the constituency for funding these alternative schools — however indirectly, through vouchers, scholarships, tax credits or some other mechanism — is sure to increase.
In fact, last year, long before the virus, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos teamed up with Sen. Ted Cruz to push for “Education Freedom Scholarships,” which would have provided $5 billion for educational experimentation, including home schooling. And just this past month, Cruz was pushing his education proposal yet again.
To be sure, vouchers have been kicking around for decades, and they have proven to have limited appeal — and unlimited opposition from the teachers unions.
Yet even so, more vouchers are likely coming, albeit perhaps disguised as something else. How so? We might recall that Democrat Andrew Yang built his quirky but resonant presidential campaign on the idea of a $1,000 a month “freedom dividend” for everyone, thereby helping to instantiate the appeal of putting more money into the hands of ordinary people.
For his part, the man who defeated Yang, Joe Biden, has rejected this sort of universal basic income, and yet he has proposed a bold expansion of the child tax credit. (Biden also favors a significant increase in childcare tax credits, and out of these greater credits, more learning could occur.)
Indeed, there’s a kind of harmonic convergence occurring between much of the left and much of the right, converging on the desirability of transferring more money to poor and working class families. And once again we can see that varying names can hide basic similarities: Just as there’s not a lot of difference between an education pod and a home school, so, too, there’s not a lot of difference between a cash outlay to parents and a school voucher. After all, money is fungible.
Moreover, as so much of education is becoming virtualized — in tandem, of course, with the virtualization of so much of our society — then it’s likely that the pressure to reexamine current educational spending priorities will continue, as new tech possibilities continue to present themselves.
Yes, many observers are dubious about the efficacy of virtualized education — once known as “distance learning” — and yet the non-profit Khan Academy, free to all, is flourishing; so some students, at least, are learning.
Indeed, every advance in digital technology makes virtualization seem more plausible, at least on a niche basis — and some of those niches could indeed be wide.
For instance, Google has just launched six-month training modules, at the end of which a student can earn a Google Career Certificate. Many young people might conclude that a quick name-brand “diploma” in a tech field could prove valuable on the job market — more valuable than, say, a college degree that takes years.
After all, in the mordant phrasing of demographer Joel Kotkin, “The number of employers looking for largely unskilled people inculcated with radical Marxist rhetoric, not to mention simmering racial and gender resentments, is likely to be small.”
Yes, the $739 billion we spend on K-12 education is a big pie, and the $604 billion we spend on higher education is almost as rich a morsel. So parents, students, innovators and others will naturally be looking for new ways to slice the pies.Moreover, in the Covidean Era, breakthroughs in augmented reality, virtual reality, haptics — and who knows what else — are likely to come quickly. As the virus crisis has already demonstrated, Americans have never been slow to try new things, especially when there’s money involved.
James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.