Do Alternatives to Public School Have to Be Political?


When Mysa School started about eight years ago, the microschool movement was new.

A school with about 40 students in Washington, D.C., and with a second location in Vermont, Mysa stresses mastery-based learning, where students have to show comprehension before advancing. The idea is that having smaller school sizes enables students to develop much deeper relationships at school, says Siri Fiske, founder of Mysa School.

Mysa’s tuition costs parents who don’t receive aid around $20,000 a year, comparable to what it costs the government to educate a student in a public school. Mysa’s curriculum relies on Common Core, the same national standards as public schools, Fiske says. “But we’re just doing it in really, really different ways,” she adds.

The “mastery” focus means that students are grouped by ability, and so a single student can be in one group for reading level and a different group for writing level. Students tend to get grouped in at least three different levels at once, Fiske says.

Ultimately, Fiske says, the goal is personalized learning. The school doesn’t have grades, and it tries to give students a way to really pursue their educational interests. After the poet Amanda Gorman read a poem during President Joe Biden’s inauguration, for instance, lots of Mysa’s fifth and sixth grade students wanted to learn poetry. They spent much of the year on it. In the end it meant that the students had an advanced grasp of poetry, but lagged in other English standards like grammar, Fiske says. But the school kept track of it and circled back later, and the parents went along because they could see the students were learning, she adds. It’s the sort of flexibility she hopes will eventually be taken back to public schools, allowing students more control of their education.

When it started, Fiske claims Mysa was the first school to call itself a microschool. But these days, microschools — loosely defined as schools with relatively few students that function as private schools or learning centers for homeschool students — seem to be everywhere.

The COVID-19 pandemic drove a big increase in homeschooled students, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Homeschool Hub, a collection of homeschooling research and resources. Afterward, people expected it to return to pre-pandemic levels, but it seems to be growing in many states, says Angela Watson, an assistant research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

But for Fiske, of Mysa, the popularity of alternatives to public school actually raises a concern: She fears that her approach to microschooling could be eclipsed by politics and cultural war clashes.

And she isn’t the only one with that worry. As public schools are burdened by nasty political scraps and enrollment declines, these alternative options will play a larger role in offering educational experiences for more students and families. But for thoughtful proponents, the politics of it all can threaten to undermine the promise that attracted them to these alternatives in the first place.

Small Is the New Big

Public school enrollments have dipped since the pandemic, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. And projections show a slow but steady decline in the next few years.

In contrast, many alternatives to public school are blossoming.

From homeschooling to charters to microschools, they are becoming more common ways for American students to learn. For example: Analysis from The Washington Post suggests that homeschools have seen a more than 50 percent increase in students since the pandemic, making it the type of school with the most explosive growth, during a time when it is estimated that public schools lost about 4 percent of their enrollment.

There isn’t reliable data that tracks distinctions between some of these alternatives, such as homeschools and microschools, says Watson, of Johns Hopkins. But these days, about 5 to 6 percent of all K-12 students are homeschooled, which means that model has received very little attention compared to charter schools, considering that about 7 percent of students attend those, she adds. Often, she says, students are really attending something that looks like a private school, or a “microschool,” and those schools are classifying themselves as “homeschools.” Regardless, microschools are increasingly accessing public dollars through education savings accounts and vouchers, which Watson thinks will focus attention on them.

To some observers, these are part of the same trend.

Fiske says she suspects homeschool and microschool growth is related. The reason there are so many homeschoolers now, she speculates, is that many microschools around the country register their students as “homeschooled,” often because these schools are in places that aren’t zoned for school and are being taught by unlicensed instructors.

It’s perhaps reflective of an ideological change regarding these sorts of schools.

Always, for Fiske, the point of microschools was to find “small tweaks” to education. Microschooling was an experiment whose insights she meant to transpose into public schools. Fiske had been previously employed by an independent school in California, while in a doctoral program for education psychology, researching how people learn, she says. She had also worked in public schools before launching Mysa.

But just before the pandemic, she says she was approached by FreedomWorks, an advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, big political donors, and associated with the “tea party” movement in favor of libertarian ideas. They were interested in building “alternative chains of schools,” Fiske says. For them, it seemed more crucial to divert students from public schools than to experiment and eventually reimport lessons back to public schools that would benefit others.

These days, it seems to Fiske like her commitment to public school puts her in the minority among fellow leaders of microschools. A lot of people are doing this less out of interest in, say, personalized learning and more because they want to get children away from public school, Fiske says.

In states where the “school choice” movement has made strides, there may soon be more public cash available for these alternatives. Some lawmakers in Indiana, for instance, want to expand the use of Education Scholarship Accounts to divert public funds toward microschools, and the state already has private school vouchers that directly provide money to parents. This has raised the thorny issue of whether alternative options want to accept government funding and the oversight that comes with it, or whether that might spoil the reason parents are flocking toward these alternatives.

But, for Fiske, the issue with these ideological interests is primarily a lack of transparency. Without accreditation or licensing, it’s all very murky. Moreover, political connections at a particular institution aren’t always obvious, she says. It’s not necessarily clear that groups like the National Microschooling Center, a popular source of information on these schools, receive funding from groups like Stand Together Trust, a Koch-funded organization, Fiske says.

And Fiske isn’t alone in wondering whether her vision for her educational experiment might be swept away amid larger political shifts.

Value-Add

There are other criticisms of public school, of course.

One is that schools don’t really do enough to intentionally instill good “character” into students, says Brandon McCoy, a former researcher for the right-leaning think tank Manhattan Institute. Our institutions tend to take the view that it’s the parents’ responsibility to do that, he says. But because schools play such a huge role in a child’s development, when students are outside of parents’ supervision, schools should make it their responsibility to promote character development as well, McCoy says.

That’s partly why he’s interested in classical learning, a form of education that often emphasizes the “classics” of Western heritage. McCoy published a survey of classical learning schools in 2021 for Manhattan Institute, which painted it as an “attractive option for parents.”

McCoy says he prizes them primarily for instilling moral and civic virtues in students. But McCoy’s argument for classical learning also includes a “practical case,” which points to these institutions providing better outcomes for racial minority students who live in cities, a kind of subtle equity argument. In looking at a few classical learning schools, McCoy pointed to higher results — especially for Black students at one school, South Bronx Classical, a free public charter for K-8 students in New York. Its students are mostly Black and Hispanic, coming from around the South Bronx, a poor area, McCoy notes. “South Bronx Classical probably just has my heart,” he says, adding that its students’ scores in math and reading assessments showed it to be a “diamond in the rough.”

For McCoy, the school’s rigorous focus on debate and confronting texts that have “stood the test of time” accounts for some of this improved academic performance.

While popular in some conservative circles, classical learning isn’t traditionally a byword for culture war politics.

Nevertheless, classical learning does periodically pop up in reactionary contexts. Most recently, Florida turned to it as an “anti-woke” alternative. The state started to permit the “Classical Learning Test” as a substitute for the SAT. In place of the usual subjects, the test was developed to probe knowledge of timeless ideas. However, its developer has complained of being drawn in by culture war fights. Perhaps surprisingly, Florida’s adoption won some sparse support from the other side of the political spectrum, including from the progressive scholar and presidential candidate Cornel West, who wrote in 2023 that it’s wrong to construe Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ elevation of classical learning as conservative. DeSantis’ move “transcends partisanship,” West wrote, because seminal ideas are always “revolutionary.”

But those aligned with DeSantis, including networks of classical schools like Hillsdale College’s, have looked to grow classical charters.

Nowadays, one of the biggest criticisms of the classical education movement is that it’s been co-opted by “hyperpartisan” right-wing groups, McCoy says. Some of these movements have been accused of amounting to a conservative “Trojan horse” attempting to sneak in ideology under the guise of liberal arts. That’s potentially unsettling because McCoy thinks that the movement can be beneficial regardless of political leanings. He doesn’t want to see the movement taken over by partisanship, he says. It’s not a problem that’s unique to classical learning models, he adds.

In the end, he can’t dwell too much on that, he says, adding that all he can do is defend his positions. Civic learning is just too important an issue to abandon because of “bad actors,” McCoy says.

Rebranding

The changing agenda of alternative schools has left Fiske, the founder of Mysa School, wondering whether to even use the term “microschool,” she says.

She’s concerned that big, politically motivated funders and polarization could lead more thoughtful expressions of microschools to be drowned out or falsely branded as conservative, rather than just educational.

It’s confusing. Many parents are clearly feeling a need for smaller, more personalized and more flexible schools, Fiske says. But right now, the term doesn’t distinguish much between what she considers to be legitimate, fully licensed schools like hers and “kids in a basement in Kentucky,” she says.

There are going to need to be new labels, Fiske argues. For now, she says, what philosophies these schools truly promote may not be clear.



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