Ad hoc arrangements like “pandemic pods” have proven to be important for many children and their families this school year. Policies that push back against bullying public school systems and teacher unions are important, but for educational choice to truly become a feature of America’s K-12 educational landscape—and not a novelty—requires not only political encouragement, but cultural encouragement as well.

One of the very few positive outcomes of our national struggle with COVID-19 has been that many parents have taken a more hands-on approach to their children’s school and educational experiences. In many cases, dissatisfied with how their schools have handled the situation, many parents have gone to partly, or fully, homeschooling their children, or else forming “pandemic pods,” in which a small group of families joins together to hire teachers for their kids.[1] Nationwide surveys have shown an increase in support for homeschooling and for more individualized educational solutions this year. School choice supporters (like myself) have taken note of this and been encouraged by it. But please allow me to offer a suggestion for how to cultivate this newfound desire for bespoke education: Even though the pods emerged quickly, supporting them is going to be a long-term effort, and we risk drowning them with the wrong kinds of attention. Supporters should talk more about people, less about policy models.

Unfortunately, pinning our hopes on any form of choice that arises, such as “pandemic pods,” runs the risk of being overly optimistic. Educational choice will “work” in terms of providing a multitude of educational pathways and options that leads to more innovation and better matches between (i) a variety of educational offerings and (ii) the interests and needs of students. But what makes choice work is not only the policy at the end, but the cultures from which different school models emerge. I praise the rise of “pandemic pods” as an impressive and lightning-fast reaction by parents dissatisfied with the services their bureaucratic schools have set up in response to COVID-19. In addition to pods, some have suggested educational cooperatives, where groups of parents would band together to set up small, focused, local schools, using something like a voucher or education savings account. Both are excellent ideas.

However, as a friend, I am concerned that 2020’s pods and similar ideas are going to be extremely short-lived. We should support pods and cooperatives, but we should not necessarily expect that they will transform K-12 education or be long-lasting post-COVID, when life returns to normal. Many families may love the freedom and flexibility they experience in their pods this year and continue to operate their pods indefinitely. But this seems unlikely; even if they are having reasonably good experiences this year, it is difficult to juggle one’s job and kids’ educations, even with a couple of one’s neighbors.

It is entirely possible that as the virus subsides, most people will snap back into old habits—and send their children back to conventional schools. Ad hoc arrangements like “pandemic pods” have proven to be important for many children and their families this school year. Policies that push back against bullying public school systems and teacher unions are important, but for educational choice to truly become a feature of America’s K-12 educational landscape—and not a novelty—requires not only political encouragement, but cultural encouragement as well.

What does this mean in practice? If alternative schooling models are to be sustainable and to grow, choice advocates and policymakers should think and speak more in terms of cultural groupings, not in terms of policy ideas. Russell Kirk’s “little platoons” or Alexis de Tocqueville’s “little circles”—rather than the more function-specific “pandemic pods.” Rather than simply finding ways to survive this one school year and get through “fourth grade math,” or whichever set of subjects, choice advocates might speak more in terms of building local communities through schooling. This is how the pods will survive. As one group involved in a form of this work at a hybrid homeschool mentions in my new book on the subject, “Ideal community springs from good families and friends partaking in good activities together.”[2] Creating a new, small school is a great activity to partake in with one’s friends and neighbors.

Hybrid homeschools, about which I often write, are an example of a sustainable path for small-scale models of education like pods and cooperatives. In hybrid homeschools, students often attend formal classes with uniforms, teachers, etc. 2-3 days per week and are at home the balance of the week. Thus, these schools are a hybrid of traditional schooling and homeschooling such that they have characteristics of both. Tuitions at hybrid homeschools are extremely low when compared to traditional private schools and the taxpayer cost of public schools, making them much more reasonable for many middle-class families. In some sense, hybrids are more formalized versions of homeschool cooperative groups.

Hybrid homeschools have a wide array of origin stories—some begin as more loosely-organized homeschool cooperatives (co-ops), others as ministries started by individual churches, and others start as programs that grow from existing conventional schools. What binds these schools together is not that they are a functional solution for a group of neighbors. They work and continue to exist because they are high-identity institutions in that they draw together people focused on a particular approach to education—whether that approach is based on religion, a curricular model (project-based, classical, etc.), or something else. Pandemic pods will likely help students and their families get through this semester, or through this school year, with relatively better learning opportunities until things can get back to normal. Simply being annoyed with what one’s school system is offering during this tough school year, or wanting something vaguely “better” than what traditional schools are offering during the pandemic semester or two, will lead to a very short-lived school choice reform model. What will keep small, hyperlocal schools in existence is a shared idea—actually, many ideas shared in small groups—about what education is for. Essentially what I am suggesting is that families have different notions of the educational pathways they want for their children—based on their belief system and based on their children’s needs and interests. And formally allowing and empowering families to sort into small, hyperlocal educational settings based on common beliefs and/or common student interests and needs is the key to making choice a permanent feature of America’s K-12 educational landscape. More importantly, allowing for this cultural shift will make it much more likely that children receive a K-12 education that is both coherent and meets their unique interests and needs.

In many cases hybrid homeschools exist because the families they serve are trying to be intentionally countercultural. They are rebuking mainstream American culture, and that rebuke may come either from the political right or left—or along many other dimensions. This is an uncomfortable position for most people to be in. Most people want to be normal. That said, COVID-19 has forced many parents to question whether their normal, conventional school situation really works, when tested.

Many parents, when asked in surveys, say that they most value the mere fact of the flexibility hybrid homeschools provide.[3] But many similarly note the small community aspect, or the fact that they have more time with their families, or the religious/cultural nature of the school. More small, high-identity schools seem to be able to serve many students in ways that much larger, “comprehensive” schools cannot. In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin calls this small-scale startup mindset an “incremental revival” that could even help turn down the temperature of America’s culture wars. But this requires individuals and, even more importantly, small groups, to come together to set these projects up. Policymakers and advocates should be wary of getting too excited about parents’ responses to an emergency situation (school shutdowns or public schools shifting to one-size-fits-all online learning). Pandemic pods, or hybrid homeschools, or other microschools will never be ubiquitous or sustainable if they are defined as technocratic solutions to schooling. Policies helping parents get through this school year are fine. But to maintain the pods, parents should be encouraged to band together to form mission-specific teams that will outlive COVID. Someone—many someones—have to actually do the work to create and nurture these small learning options. What’s lacking now is not the technology, nor the expertise, nor even, in many places, the political will. More everyday, unremarkable people—and their everyday, unremarkable friends—will need to look away from the “grammar of schooling” that has been in place for at least the last 60 years, accept being uncomfortable in society’s eyes, get their hands dirty, and take the risk of starting up unique but coherent and “high-identity” schools.

When gardening, one has to be careful not to overwater the plants. Tend to them, of course. Nurture them, provide them with necessary help. Brush back whatever pests try to kill them. But don’t expect one little garden to be an answer for all of the nearly 60 million K-12 students in the U.S. Don’t push them too hard, ruin people’s taste for them, or turn them into 2020’s fad diet. Instead, cultivate groups who might be interested in continuing on. Because they have the support and dedication of a local community, most hybrid homeschools and similar entities will persist post-COVID. They are perennial. They existed pre-COVID too, and largely ignore political and legal fights around choice and education reform. Policy support like education savings accounts and tax credit scholarship programs could help them sustain and grow by making them even more affordable, but the next frontier of school choice is encouraging everyday, unremarkable people all over the country to ignore the experts, ignore school conventions, pick up their tools, and create their own gardens with their friends—by starting and tending to their own small, hyperlocal schools and other educational alternatives. Short term answers can be important. But they can also turn into silly fads. Better to plant sequoias.

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Notes:

[1] Michael B. Horn, “The Rapid Rise of Pandemic Pods,” Education Next (September 2020).

[2] Eric Wearne, Defining Hybrid Homeschools in America: Little Platoons (Lexington Books, 2020).

[3] Eric Wearne, “A Survey of Families in a Charter Hybrid Homeschool,” Peabody Journal of Education (May 2019).

The featured image is “Children in the Garden” (1892) by Władysław Podkowiński (1866–1895) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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