The behemoth National Education Association seeks to squash popular pandemic microschools.
Oct. 14, 2020 5:01 pm ET
Why is the elephant afraid of the mouse? Your child’s teacher may not know, but his union does. In September the National Education Association, America’s largest labor union, produced an internal “opposition report” on Prenda, a tiny Arizona-based “microschool” provider. I obtained a copy of the document, which picks apart Prenda’s vulnerabilities but also offers a warning: “The Opposition Report has documented widespread support for micro-schools.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to receive a presentation about Prenda on Thursday at a charter school in Phoenix.
Midway between home schools and private schools, microschools bring together a small group of students, five to 10 a school at Prenda, usually at a private residence. Instruction is handled by an education-service provider like Prenda.
The company had been growing before the pandemic, but since February it has more than quadrupled the number of students it serves. After U.S. schools shut down or moved online, parents—one-third of them, according to a September EdChoice poll—joined with neighbors to form learning “pods.” A much smaller number withdrew from traditional school altogether. Today Prenda administers around 400 microschools educating more than 3,000 students, says chief executive Kelly Smith.
The NEA opposition report cites an expert who thinks microschools can “address some of the structural limitations of homeschooling,” such as parents’ work obligations, and—this is Prenda’s innovation—take advantage of school-choice programs to “alleviate some equity issues” posed by the cost of hiring your own teachers. The combination could make home education feasible for millions more families. (The NEA didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“We’ve partnered with schools that access state funding so that we’re able to offer it for free for the families,” Mr. Smith explains. Prenda students are registered in public schools, usually charters, which receive state funding for each pupil and then pay some of it to Prenda to handle those kids’ education. The NEA frames this as Prenda “banking on taxpayers to provide the lion’s share of its revenue.”
The report cites a local advocacy group’s research, which argues Arizona charter networks are “laundering state funds” to support microschools and kick money back to Prenda. Mr. Smith says public schools already contract for curricula and textbooks. Why not instruction? “Schools should be allowed to find partners and get help,” he says. Jason Bedrick, director of policy for EdChoice, adds that “the public has agreed to a charter-school system that provides a diversity of options. Some are classical-education schools, some focus on economics, some are Montessori, and some now offer microschooling.”
Charter schools are helping Arizona microschools take off, but the NEA report rejects the argument that Prenda’s model changes the game. To find out why, it directs readers to a public NEA document for “policy support.” There, the union throws its hardest fastball: “We’ve already seen opportunity gaps widen for students—specifically Indigenous, Black, and students of color and students from under-resourced communities. The proliferation of pandemic pods, microschools, and home education will widen this gap and worsen school segregation as well-resourced families will disproportionately benefit.”
It’s a strange pitch from the teachers union: Microschools are dangerous—they help their students learn more! This seems like a reason to broaden access, not restrict it. And that’s what Prenda has done by eliminating tuition: make microschools accessible to low-income families. The NEA report doesn’t address that point.
Teachers should love microschools, says Joseph Connor, chief operating officer of SchoolHouse, a New York-based company that matches learning pods with teachers. “We allow them the freedom and ability to get great academic outcomes in the way they think is best,” he says—and with small class sizes, too. Like most other microschools, SchoolHouse, which the NEA opposition report mentions, must charge tuition. But the company says 92% of it, on average, goes to teachers, who earn 10% to 20% more than at their prior teaching positions.
The low overheard, a key microschool advantage, is threatened by regulation. The New York State Education Department advises parents who hire tutors for the majority of instruction that they are no longer doing home education but operating a private school. “There’s nothing in New York law, either in regulation or statute, that says that,” Mr. Connor insists. If enforced, the regulatory change would make it difficult to run microschools in homes and without larger administrative staffs. “It looks like they’re trying to scare people away from operating a microschool in New York,” Mr. Bedrick says.
In New York’s Westchester County, a zoning board is trying to deem a SchoolHouse microschool a day-care center, which is unlawful in its residential zone. Similar rules are popping up all over. The Public Health Department in Austin, Texas, seems to suggest home microschools with four or more children must become “registered child-care homes” that meet “minimum standards” laid out in a 244-page document. A class, background check and home inspection are also required. “The point is death by a thousand cuts,” says Mr. Bedrick. “Pile on as much regulation as they can get away with and make it increasingly difficult for families to organize—without any evidence that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
In its policy document on microschools, the NEA says it “encourages innovative solutions that will allow students to have in-person instruction and important opportunities for socialization with peers”; but there’s a semicolon, then a qualification: “however, the NEA believes that such cohort-style learning arrangements should be organized, implemented, and monitored under the authority of state and district education agencies.”
In other words, the union supports only alternatives that keep the money in the system, where it retains control. It is understandable that a teachers union would think this way; it is less clear why anyone else should.
Mr. Kaufman is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.