Freeing the School-Choice Genie

Oakes McClenahan, 7, does his school work as he watches his teacher’s recorded lesson on a computer at home during the coronavirus outbreak in Seattle, Wash., U.S. March 27, 2020. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)
Many parents who are now trying alternative forms of learning for their kids will not go back to traditional methods.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he least expected consequence of COVID-19 in the education realm will be the vast expansion of educational choices.

Come August/September, and possibly sooner, millions of American parents will have to decide whether to send their children “back to school” in the traditional sense; whether to send them to the same brick-and-mortar school or a different one; whether instead to keep them at home, engaged in “virtual” instruction (and new, often improvised forms of “home schooling”); or whether to opt for a hybrid arrangement that sees them in school some of the time and learning at home (or elsewhere) the rest of the time.

Not all of those alternatives will be available everywhere, of course, and what’s available to a given family may change as schools and districts revise their offerings, adapt to changing circumstances, and perhaps develop new delivery options. States will have to change their rules and tracking systems, too. But the fact remains that millions of families that believed they had a stable (if not necessarily perfect) schooling arrangement for their daughters and sons and saw no reason (or perhaps no opportunity) to make choices will now be able — and very likely forced — to do so.

We’ve already seen schools in Denmark and a few other places reopening under very different regimens. If social distancing in the classroom means, for example, that only one third or half as many students as before can be accommodated “in school” at the same time, the rest will remain home, perhaps on alternate days or in split shifts, but in any case with much more of their learning having to occur outside the usual classroom setting. While that arrangement may not be offered as a choice for some families, we’re also seeing — in Denmark and elsewhere — apprehensive parents exercising the option of keeping their kids at home full time even when the schoolhouse doors were open to them.

In the U.S., as schools struggle to resume, some 5 million students already have an underlying condition that deepens their vulnerability, and many more have parents (or others in the household) with such conditions. It’s unimaginable that districts will require them to reenter school buildings, no matter how sanitized and socially distanced. Scads more parents simply won’t take the risk of classroom-based education — nor can I picture a second-grade classroom in which those seven-year-olds are successfully separated from one another at all times. It’s equally unimaginable that parents who opt to keep their little ones at home will be denied other learning opportunities — or prosecuted for violating their state’s attendance law. They will have to be given choices, which means schools and districts will have to deliver instruction in more than one format while flexing a hundred rules and standard practices.

That will transform the burdens and responsibilities on schools and districts as we know them, but it will also change the relationship between schools and families. The “one best system,” as education historian David Tyack famously termed it, will become more like a multimedia education-delivery system. Most schools and districts will find this difficult and upsetting, and the unions and other vested interests will push back as best they can, but for parents and kids it opens new opportunities, much of it in the realms of “virtual choices” and “course choices” rather than, as classically defined, choices among brick-and-mortar buildings.

At a minimum, school systems will have to offer some form of full-time on-line instruction to stay-at-home pupils, as most of them have been struggling — with mixed results — to do in recent weeks. They may attempt to do it themselves, perhaps deploying at-risk teachers who also work remotely. They may team up in consortia. They could also outsource it to one or more of the zillion extant for-profit and non-profit vendors of virtual schooling. But why not go further? Once one opts to keep a child at home, why confine her learning opportunities to what’s offered by her district of residence? There will be huge demand to get better or more varied curricula and higher-quality pedagogy or greater flexibility from the next district over or one across the state — or from distant education providers chosen by parents rather than district bureaucrats. And why does it all have to come from the same place? What about getting some of that child’s curriculum from a charter school, a private school, a non-profit (such as Khan Academy), or a specialized for-profit firm, such as Apex Learning? From the YMCA or a summer camp or the public library?

Home-based schooling may come to resemble “ordering in” from whatever restaurant or delivery service suits you tonight — and different members of the family may want to order different things from different places. You don’t limit your child’s clothing options to what’s on offer at the nearest Gap, not when Amazon is a click or two away. Why limit learning?

Messy and complex indeed, and getting it to work smoothly will require myriad changes in how school dollars flow, in how “attendance” is defined and measured, in how curricular and graduation requirements are applied, in how student learning is appraised, and in how “accountability” works. States will be as much involved as districts in navigating this new world of education options and the rules that govern it. Parents will need ample information and sources of advice in dealing with it all. The challenges on all sides will be many. But so will the opportunities to do school differently and to adapt one’s schooling to one’s preferences, priorities, and anxieties.

Once loosed from the traditional confines, it’s hard to picture the schooling genie ever being shoved back into the old bottle.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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