The Teachers Unions vs. COVID Microschooling

Every Thursday morning, Arizona parent Marta Mac Ban dresses her six-year-old daughter in khaki shorts and a navy blue shirt and takes her to a neighbor’s house to study with other children. Participants recite the Pledge of Allegiance, review the calendar and collaborate on enrichment activities. Other days during the week, Mac Ban teaches her daughter at home.

The routine is new for the family, which did kindergarten in the Cave Creek Unified School District until March. That’s when COVID-19 forced an abrupt switch to Zoom. Mac Ban, who tries to limit her daughter’s screen time, quickly opted out. “She’s not going to sit still for hours at a time staring at a computer,” Mac Ban says.

Many families across the United States have made similar moves during the past 10 months, as teachers unions have lobbied to keep campuses closed. The showdown in Chicago, where union members have refused to resume in-person instruction, is just one example.

Similar power struggles have played out in Maryland, South Carolina, and elsewhere, leaving parents caught in the middle. Some have kept their children enrolled in public schools, while gathering in small groups to supplement the online instruction. Other families, like the Mac Bans, have quit the system altogether. Workarounds include homeschool co-ops, pandemic pods, and microschools.

Teachers unions have watched the trend with alarm. Their concern is not that home-supervised instruction fails, but the opposite. They worry that parents will like the experience so much that they won’t want to return to their neighborhood schools when the pandemic subsides.

Ashley Ekpo, a working mother from Maryland, might fall into this category. She started homeschooling her five children as a temporary measure to get through the pandemic, but is no longer sure if she wants to stop. “We’re staying open-minded because we’re having a really good experience with it,” she says.

For families that do come back, union leaders and their allies have a different concern. They worry that pod children will have learned too much during the pandemic -- forcing uncomfortable questions about public school performance. “Children whose parents have the means to participate in learning pods will most likely return to school academically ahead,” writes Atlanta Public Schools learning specialist Clara Totenberg Green. She fears the extra instruction will exacerbate inequities.

Think about that: getting ahead is now a problem. The National Education Association takes this backward position in a recent policy paper. Using loaded terms like “radical” and “unqualified,” the report paints pod parents as segregationists. The authors argue that the proliferation of home study groups will widen opportunity gaps because well-resourced families will benefit disproportionately.

New York University sociologist R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy embraces the logic, labeling pod parents as opportunity hoarders. Gregory Hutchings, superintendent of Alexandria Public Schools in Virginia, piles on with additional warnings about opportunity gaps. Apparently, however, his desire that nobody gets ahead during the pandemic applies only to others. Shortly after a recent lecture on the topic, he quietly pulled one of his own children out of the district and enrolled her in a private Catholic school with face-to-face instruction.

Brooke Hunt, a homeschool parent from Arizona, rejects the claim that learning pods work only for certain segments of society. She sees ample diversity in the homeschool group that she runs with two other families. Participants not only come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also different age groups.

Her only regret is that she cannot help more families thrive during the pandemic. “I wish I could open my home to everyone where there is a need,” Hunt says.

Teachers unions could benefit from the same entrepreneurial spirit. Instead of fighting against educational solutions that threaten their authority, they should look for ways to scale up innovation. The goal should be to expand opportunity for everyone -- not to hold privileged children back.

Our organization, the nonprofit Institute for Justice, has argued for three decades that the process starts by expanding choice. The public interest law firm, which recently earned a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on behalf of low-income private school families in Montana, has followed up with similar lawsuits in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Unfortunately, the usual suspects have opposed all of these efforts. Union leaders complain about opportunity gaps, but then do everything they can to limit opportunity. While the teachers themselves generally adjust and do all they can for the kids entrusted to them, their unions focus on politics. The lack of choice that results locks most families into a single option.

Mac Ban understands the score. “One size does not fit all,” she says. “It’s ironic that they say, ‘No child left behind’ because so many kids are left behind when everyone is forced to go just to one school based on their ZIP code.”

Daryl James is a writer and Erica Smith is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

Image: Pixnio