Growth of the Pod

Published December 4, 2020

Homeschoolers are a bête noire for teachers’ unions. When children learn at home, it translates to less control, money, and power for the public education complex. The National Education Association periodically adopts resolutions stipulating that homeschooling families “cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience.” The union also insists on instruction “by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency” and a curriculum “approved by the state department of education.”

In California, the union got its wish in March 2008, when an appeals court ruled that parents who teach children at home must be credentialed by the state. “We’re happy,” said Lloyd Porter, a member of the California Teachers Association board of directors. “We always think students should be taught by credentialed teachers, no matter what the setting.” Fortunately for the state’s 166,000 kids who learn at home, the decision was reversed later that year, and traditional homeschooling continued.

Now, with the advent of so-called pandemic pods, union bosses are in panic mode. The pods, a form of microschooling, have sprung up because of Covid-related online learning, which many parents find to be inadequate. The pods are home-based; parents team up with other local families or friends to teach their children, and some hire teachers to help. So not only are families shunning traditional schools; they’re also taking some professional educators with them. (In a recent poll, 69 percent of teachers said that they were interested in joining a pod.)

NEA president Becky Pringle worries that “pods will become more widespread and damage a public-education system already reeling from budget cuts and struggling to fund Covid-19 safety measures.” This scenario, in turn, could “open the door for more inequity, segregation and unsafe workplaces, since pods are expensive and unregulated.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten denigrates the pods as a “pandemic Band-Aid.”

Seriously threatened by the pod phenomenon, the NEA has taken action. The union issued an “opposition report” attacking Prenda, a microschool provider in Arizona, on dubious grounds. Prenda policy says that any prescription drugs, alcohol, or weapons must be locked and secured at pod locations, but the union claims that it’s unclear whether Prenda conducts inspections. The NEA also says that Prenda should be taken to task for not providing meals or transportation to the students; in other words, the union is suggesting that parents are incapable of taking care of their own kids’ most basic needs.

It’s not just teachers’ unions going after the pods. In Massachusetts, state guidelines affirm, “Entities that provide supervision and care of children during school hours without an EEC license or EEC license exemption will be subject to investigation, closure, and fines by EEC pursuant to its statutory obligation to investigate unlicensed child care programs.” In Pennsylvania, if a pod has more than six students, it must develop an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency and ensure that every space where the pod gathers has a functional fire-detection system. Oregon asserts that homeschooling pods “need to follow regulations and get the right permits.” A report released last week by Heritage Foundation policy analyst Jonathan Butcher reveals that 19 states have either imposed new regulations or expanded existing ones that can interfere with families’ attempts to gain access to pods.

The education establishment is battling to maintain its monopoly status, but the numbers are not looking good for their cause. According to an October EdChoice poll, learning pods are booming nationally, with 31 percent of parents claiming they currently participate in one and another 18 percent of parents interested in joining one. While 85 percent of the polled families said that their pod was “in addition to or supplementing regular schooling,” or “a substitute for attending regular school or virtual/remote learning,” 15 percent said that their pod was a “substitute for attending regular school.”

While 15 percent of one-third is less than 5 percent of all students, it is still a significant number. As Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, points out, “That is within a point or two of the number of children enrolled in Catholic schools. It’s only a bit smaller than the number of students enrolled in charter schools. It is on par with the number of children who are homeschooled. All three of those groups are considered substantial parts of the educational landscape in America.”

The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics show there were 1.69 million homeschooled kids in the U.S. in 2016, or about 3.3 percent of the total. With pandemic pods ascending, there is no telling how high that number will rise—but it’s certain that the education establishment will resist every step of the way.

Butcher’s report makes policy recommendations that include a hands-off approach to the pods: not restricting their size, barring state agencies from snooping on them, and not imposing zoning or emergency-plan requirements. In other words, parents should be in full control of their children’s learning experience. They get to choose the clothes their kids wear, the food they eat, and their bedtimes. Now it’s time for them to recover their authority over a traditional role: educating them. The failure of public education to respond effectively to the pandemic has given many parents the opportunity to take charge of how their kids learn.

[Originally posted on City Journal]