This Saturday edition of “The Daily Signal Podcast” features a discussion with Andy Smarick, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, on how education is evolving after the COVID-19 pandemic.

School lockdowns, masking, and other restrictions have affected how parents across America think about their children’s education. COVID-19 accelerated certain trends that already were afoot, such as the demand for increasing school choice opportunities outside public schools.

Moreover, parts of America have been the scene of tremendous battles over the content of curriculum, particularly regarding critical race theory, which parents were shocked to find in their children’s instruction.

So what’s next?

Smarick observes that COVID-19 launched “small learning communities really oriented around the needs of families and kids” because restrictions during the pandemic resulted in “50 million students [who] suddenly had to find something different because their schools were shut down.”

“And that’s when we saw the rise of pods, hubs, and hybrid homeschooling and also microschooling,” he says. “This is just a wonderful Tocquevillian response, spontaneous order to a calamitous situation where all these parents were saying, ‘Heavens, we just need new options for our kids because they’re not getting anything and I still have to work.'”

The real question is whether this revolution in education will continue. 

Richard Reinsch: Welcome to the Saturday Edition of The Daily Signal podcast. I’m Richard Reinsch. Today, we’re talking with Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute about education in America after COVID-19. Andy Smarick, in addition to being a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute was appointed in 2021 by Maryland governor, Larry Hogan, to the University of Maryland Board of Regents. He has also served as chair of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and a president of the Maryland State Board of Education, and he has done this as a conservative in Maryland, which is its own interesting conversation. Andy, welcome to the program.

Andy Smarick: Oh, it’s a treat to be here. Thank you for having me, Richard.

Reinsch: Andy, you are someone who is not just a writer, researcher, commentator, but as your bio indicates, you’ve been involved in the public square in a way that many of us, people like myself have not. I mean, you’ve actually been involved in these debates where the rubber meets the road and well, you bring an interesting perspective in that regard to all of these debates and conversations. Thinking about what COVID-19 has done to education, what are you seeing in Maryland and across the country? Are we in potentially a revolutionary moment?

Smarick: Well, possibly, but probably not. So I’ll answer this in a couple ways and you can direct me which parts of this are most interesting. We have to remember that COVID-19 did displace about 50 million kids, at least temporarily in all of the country. And so we’re talking back in March, April of 2020. One week, everything was normal and then the next week all these schools were shut down. So never before in public policy can I think of has something like this happened before where the rhythms and routines and the funding streams of education just suddenly overnight fundamentally changed. And so families had to decide what they were going to do with this, how they were going to make sure their kids were educated. And this is obviously more than just masks, it’s what do they do with their time during the day? What if their district isn’t providing great online resources? What if the school isn’t really producing any kind of content for kids to learn?

So what we know is that going back for as long as I can remember there being survey data, most people, we’re talking two thirds of Americans, including parents like their local public schools. And I want to underscore this because I think this is something that a lot of folks on the right sometimes miss when we talk about all the struggles of America’s public schools, most Americans like their local public schools. They can be frustrated with schools nationally, just like they’re frustrated with Congress nationally, but they like their own Congressman or Congresswoman. So prior to COVID-19 and going way before it, most people liked their local public schools. And even during COVID-19, most families still liked what their public schools were doing and there’s some interesting things based on geography, based on politics of like what their feelings were. But while families were saying they generally liked their public schools, even they thought their schools were responding well to COVID-19, they were telling us in surveys that they wanted to see this as an opportunity to fundamentally change public schooling.

So already you can see the ambivalence here, which is it? Do they like their public schools or do they want something to fundamentally change? So what we know is that an unprecedented number of families switched schools during COVID-19. A number of them went to these options that we’ll talk about, hybrid homeschooling, homeschooling pods, hubs, micro schooling with online elements and so forth. So a lot of that happened during this time, but what we’re starting to see now based on survey data and then the enrollment data that’s coming in is that most families are gravitating back toward what they had before, going back to their traditional public schools, traditional private schools. So how much of a lasting effect this will have, like how revolutionary this will be, we don’t know yet if we’re talking about 500,000 kids, a million kids, five million kids doing something different pre and post COVID-19. All we know is it was dramatic during and now we’re trying to figure out what the landscape looks like now that for all intents and purposes, schools are getting back to normal.

Reinsch: Well, and I asked you that rather dramatic question at the beginning to get our conversation going, but it’s also the case, it seems to me that what happened in Northern Virginia, I would not have predicted, I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted certain pedagogical ideology emerging, say teaching identity politics or what’s also called Critical Race Theory so strongly. And I would not have predicted that we would’ve held onto masks in the schools as long as they’ve been held onto and even going on right now in some places still, despite so much evidence about children. And I wondered if in many respects, we’re in a revolutionary moment because something that people on the right I think have long known about public schools is they really don’t see themselves in partnership with parents. They see themselves having a pedagogical mission that starts at the level of say the teacher unions or state boards of education and they mean to teach what they want to teach and parents can come along for the ride if they want, but they’re not too interested in what they have to say.

And it seems to me that that insistence has been challenged and COVID-19 made it possible.

Smarick: Okay. So let me push back on one interpretation of what you’re saying, and we can get into details. I don’t want to misconstrue what you said, but I think it’s important to recognize how diverse America’s public school system is, how expansive it is and how there are different things going on in different places. There are 13,500-ish public school districts in America. Many people think public education, if you only read a couple news article on education every week, if you just have a passing interest in education, you could read a couple articles that just make you think that everything is falling apart and you’ll read some dramatic story coming out of Northern Virginia or out of Los Angeles. Well, those districts do not reflect all of America’s public school. Most public school districts in America, the average district has about seven schools. And if you exclude the biggest school districts in America, like New York that has over a million kids, or Chicago has 400,000 plus, or Los Angeles has 700,000 plus, if you get rid of like the far right end of the distribution, most school districts have more like five schools.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the mode or the median school district is four or five schools and maybe a couple thousand students. And because these school districts are democratically controlled still, meaning they have elected school boards, in most places, school districts are still pretty well attuned to the politics, the dispositions of the people in the area. So although it’s certainly the case in a lot of places, unions have outsized effect, but we’re talking in large school districts in places that have very powerful unions. In lots of places in America, and this is something that was missed in I think a lot of the commentary of the COVID-19 response, in most places in America, schools got back up and running in the fall of 2020. So most schools were shut down the spring, the end of the 2020 school year. But in Northern Virginia and lots of other places where we heard all these stories coming from, masks and closures and bad online services, but in lots of places, schools got back to normal and parents were quite satisfied.

So I always like to tell people, when we’re talking about America’s public schools, make sure we always remember that data is not the plural of anecdote. Just because we see one or two or three bad instances, those are certainly bad instances, but let’s not assume that that reflects the entire story of American public education. So yes, I want to concede your point that lots of things happened that made lots of people angry, but there are lots of places in America where people know their principals and teachers and school board members. It’s a small democratically controlled unit. It’s a long standing institution. It’s woven into the fabric of the community and they like what was happening and they see some of these hotheaded stories, these crazy anecdotes from elsewhere and say, well, that’s bad. I’m happy that’s not happening in my town or in my district.

Reinsch: Interesting, was thinking about what I hear you saying is there were some states, blue states, Virginia’s not necessarily a blue state, but who were locked into a preexisting manner of governance, which sort of naturally fed into COVID-19 responses and in particular, certain curricula insistence that drove these stories.

Smarick: Yeah. So what the data tells us is, and I’m going to paint with a broad brush here, but in general, when a district was small, when a district was red politically, when it was more likely to be rural and when it was in a red state, those school districts were more likely to get up and running quickly and parents were more satisfied with what was happening there and there generally seemed to be way less political tension. Often because a district is small, it’s more likely to be politically homogeneous, meaning there’re going to be less fundamental fights about values because a small community is more likely to have a consensus on things. And the consensus in the area B may be different than the consensus area A, but because they’re democratically controlled, there are just less fights.

In school districts that were big, meaning that we’re now talking 100, 150, 200 schools, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of students, big districts, more urban districts in blue areas politically and in blue states, these are the places where people were more likely to want schools to be closed, where masks lasted longer and we saw these are the places where the most heated political fights about curriculum, about masks and other things. But in a sense, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Any large jurisdiction that’s heterogeneous is going to have gigantic fights about matters of principle. And this is about welfare, this is about transportation, this is about housing. This is what American politics is all about and one reason America’s schools have been so robust historically to a bunch of different political trends is because they are small, they are locally controlled and democratically controlled so they can serve as a bull work against things like Common Core, against things like NCLB.

And we saw a lot of that happen during COVID-19, but what we also saw is some of these big, the most toxic fights happening in some of these districts. And I don’t want to discount how important those fights were, but I just want people to realize that what was happening in Northern Virginia or outside of Chicago or whatever one of these districts did not reflect what was necessarily happening in the 13,450 other districts in America.

Reinsch: On this point, just real quickly, you and I have talked, you live in a fairly conservative area of a pretty liberal state, Maryland. How long were your children out of school?

Smarick: Well, Maryland, okay, so in my district, they shut down in that spring of 2020 and then they were closed for some of the 2020, ’21 school year and then they got back up, but they all had masks. And that was largely because in Maryland, the state board of education passed emergency regulations requiring all school districts, all 24 to wear masks. And then just recently, they lifted that mandate and most school districts are now pulling back from masks. So we had a particular circumstance here that we opened up a little bit slower than other places with similar demographics along the four categories I gave you earlier, but we got opened more quickly. And although there was a lot of online stuff, kids were back in classrooms during that second school year, not as quickly as say in Idaho or in Wyoming where a lot of places were open virtually immediately, but we also have a relatively small school district and it’s in a more conservative area.

And I just want to underscore this point, which is what was really interesting is that we knew based on the survey data that low income families, families of color, families in urban areas were more nervous about the effects of COVID-19. And in those places, they wanted their schools to be closed longer and their schools were closed longer. In areas where more rural, where people were less concerned about the long term effects of COVID-19, they wanted their schools opened and in those places, schools were more likely to be open. So although the national story was almost like there was like a single story, what we really saw, and I think a lot of people are dismissing this is that school policy often was following the will of the people in these small areas that, again, in these big school districts where fights are often common, where these huge contests of values and principles, we saw big fights there.

But I bet if you were to find 10 school districts in rural areas in red states, just a random sample of 10 of the all across America and see when their schools opened and how nasty the politics were, the story would be, no, they got open pretty quickly. People were happy with it and things went swimmingly.

Reinsch: So another point, a lot of people have made the charge that, observation that during COVID-19 parents are seeing what their children are studying, what they’re being taught and told. And this sort of took the cover off diversity, equity and inclusion, identity politics, critical race theory, these things being in the curriculum and parents were gassed when they really understood what was being taught. And you are by virtue of race or gender this thing and you’re not this thing if you’re another race. Have you found that to be the case, that this really did reveal to Americans what was going on in public schools on these ideological agendas?

Smarick: Well, there are definitely stories along those lines and it is absolutely the case that when most families had to go to some sort of hybrid or online learning, that parents were just naturally more involved and they saw what was going on in their classrooms. And it wasn’t just about these issues related to cultural or political issues, it was how was reading being taught or how was math being taught, and was it different than how the parents learned? And this relates back to a point that you made at the beginning, which is an important one. And this is an issue that is not just contemporary, this goes back to the founding of American public education, the common schools in the 1830s, forties, fifties, but especially the progressive era at the turn of the 20th century, which is there are two different ways of understanding how public schools ought to be governed or led. One is that these are small democratic, longstanding institutions that should be responsive to parents and communities. So parents and communities should be in the lead.

Obviously, teachers have a good bit of expertise in training and superintendents know about administration, but a school should reflect the culture, the community, the values that the parents want, that the local area prioritizes. There’s another view that really became prominent during the progressive era and it remains in some circles today, which is no, public schools should not just be an emanation of their communities, public schools should be a place where the elite, where the best educated were professionals who have professional education degrees can essentially try to separate kids from the influences of community and free them, liberate them from all of these kind of parochial bonds that they had and all of the retrograde views that they may have come up through tradition and custom and family and so forth. And this is a fight that we see in the 1850s with Catholic schools, fights in the 1880s and 1890s, and, more recently, related to Common Core and on and on.

And the question is, are these really supposed to respond to parents or are public schools really the place where professionals can teach kids and keep parents at arm’s length. Now, my view is I respect the professionalism of teachers and administrators. They go through training, they care a whole lot about kids. They know more about pedagogy than I do and lots of other people, but still no one cares about kids more than their own parents, than their own communities. And so any kind of political movement or policy movement that makes parents feel like the parents should be on the outside I think is wrong, but also is going to lead to big political fights. And we saw this in Virginia when the former governor who was running essentially said, and I forget the exact quote in a debate that parents shouldn’t really have a say in what’s going on in the classroom. That showed these two different camps. Is this about what parents and communities want or is this what professionals want?

And I think the election results and survey results subsequent to that showed that most Americans are in the, I want to know what’s happening in my school’s camp. And they trust teachers, especially in small districts where they know teachers and administrators, but they don’t want to completely delegate that responsibility to adults who are not the parents or the community members.

Reinsch: Listening to you, I mean, were you surprised? You’ve been involved in higher education, you’ve been involved at the secondary level. Were you surprised how quickly identity politics seems to have moved through the education bureaucracy into teacher training sessions and into curriculum? I mean, just to give you an anecdotal example, I’m here in Indiana and you would think we’d be relatively immune from this. I’m in an upper middle class area and we have a diversity, equity and inclusion instructor in our local school system with a six figure salary. And we’re all trying to figure out, is this stuff in the schools or not, and they’re saying it’s not, yet she’s constantly giving teaching sessions to teachers. I’ve got to think there’s a reason why she’s doing that. What do you think?

Smarick: And if we put this in historical context, there are always movements like this on what are the cultural historical battles that are being fought at the time. And often people think that the purpose of schools isn’t just to educate students on the basics, it’s to generate a freer and more democratic and more progressive, more liberal public square. So essentially forming future citizens along the lines of whatever the current zeitgeist is in professional circles. And so we certainly saw this, things related to Common Core, but we’ve seen this in history fights going back over time, in civics fights going back over time. There was a lot of this in the Cold War era, about how much we teach about Americanism or what we teach about communism. Certainly we see this in the era in the first part of the 20th century when there was so much immigration. So these kinds of fights always pop up in American public schools and this is like the latest iteration of it.

And this is something that certainly has been going through kind of well educated circles for some time and educators are being taught this in educator preparation programs. So I’m not surprised that this is just like the latest wave that has happened, but what brings me heart on all of this stuff is that families have an outlet. They’ve been able to go to school board meetings, they’ve been able to ask questions of their teachers and principals and try to get into what are our kids learning, does it fit with our values? Do we think it’s in the best interest of our community and our kids and our state and so forth? And so some of these fights in school boards that have gotten really nasty have gone too far. And as someone who served on a bunch of public boards and as a conservative, I have no tolerance for political violence, for threats, but I do have a whole lot of tolerance, actually excitement for heated debates about things that matter.

And so if this is a case where in a lot of places, families don’t like what at least they’re hearing or speculating on what’s happening, they go to the school board and then they have rough and tumble debates with administrators. And often the families win on this. I would be more alarmed about this if it was impossible for families to have a voice, but thank goodness we have this system of decentralized school districts and families that can go to school boards and try to get their way. But I take the historical perspective and say, this is a variation on a theme that we see going back 150 years.

Reinsch: Yeah. I mean, I hear you. As someone who reads a lot of political theory, I think a lot of us as conservatives, one of the things we thought about America is we were relatively immune from this sort of ideological Marxism moving through mainstream institutions like public schools. I mean, we know it’s going to happen in higher education, but it’s left the campus and it’s in a lot of areas. I mean, in the way identity politics influences professional sports now, to just give another example, and it gives us pause. And then there’s this sense of, yeah, we don’t teach it, but we all kind of think they’re hiding the eight ball and there’s this sense of, we got to be constantly vigilant and alarmed by what’s going on. That seems to me just an ongoing battle, but to me it underscores just a general problem right now, what’s being taught in progressive teacher colleges, which are where teachers are largely licensed to teach in most states.

So it just seems an issue of ongoing concern. Education after COVID-19, were teacher unions in many states, blue states in particular weakened to a considerable degree in a way that that might be permanent?

Smarick: Yes and no. Again, I’m going to cite some survey data that I don’t think got nearly enough attention. Even in the heart of COVID-19, so we’re talking in not just the spring of 2020, but into the 2020, ’21 school year, so this is the previous school year, even when schools were closed down, survey after survey asked parents and community members, who do you blame for what’s happening in public schools or school closures, and what we saw surprised me, but upon reflection, maybe it didn’t surprise me all that much, which is people didn’t really blame teachers unions because these democratic units often reflected the majority of people in the district. If they were open, most people were happy. If they were closed, most people were either happy or they understood the rationale there. Survey after survey found that, I mean, I was expecting the union rating and public opinion to be 80, 20, negative, positive, and it wasn’t.

Often it was above water in terms of positive. Now, some of this changed over time, especially as we got later into it. And certainly in the big school districts that were closed for way too long where families just feel like they couldn’t be heard, there was a lot of pushback against unions, and I think they may suffer there. But in a lot of school districts that got open quickly and where unions are not all that powerful at all, people thought that unions were looking out for teachers’ best interests and schools got opened and often kids didn’t have to wear masks and things were fine. So as an overarching national story, I don’t think that that’s probably nearly the case, but it probably is in the areas where schools closed for way too long and we saw parents saying, I got to move my kid to a different school or we need a school choice program or we have to create a pod or a hub or a micro school.

This is I think one of the most interesting questions about this, which is a lot of these school choice things, a lot of these organic micro schools, private school startups that we saw didn’t take place necessarily in super conservative areas because in those areas, traditional public schools were already popular and they got open quickly. We saw a lot of animus, a lot of frustration in areas that were more blue or more purple politically and where schools didn’t get open and where a lot of families were saying, why are not open? So like in New York City, there were a lot of micro schools that popped up. A very blue place, but a lot of families said we need something different. So this isn’t a national story as much as it is, what are the politics in a place and how did that get out of alignment with the sentiments of the families there?

Reinsch: John Miller has the feature essay in the current National Review on the growing school choice movement. I got to think that’s linked to COVID-19. He points to over two dozen states right now have pending legislation to create school choice programs that would truly make it a movement. I’m not sure how many states right now, you probably know off the top of your head, have school choice programs to a considerable degree. Indiana has one of the most ambitious ones, but I’ve got to think 24 states with this legislation, that has to be a marker of some kind that Americans are increasingly fed up with schools. Even if they like their local public school, they still would like to have options and really many don’t.

Smarick: Yes. And maybe I should have said this at the beginning and try to orient people like where my head is on this. I am a traditional American conservative. I believe in markets, I believe in choice. I also believe in decentralization, I believe in longstanding institutions, I believe in communities controlling themselves, their voluntary associations and democratic means. So I’m a school choice zealot, but I’m also a believer in small democratic units that have been there for a long time, long standing institutions and school districts, as long as they’re small and they’re responsive. My belief is American conservatives need to struggle with this. How much are we like the conservatives who believe in preserving what we had for a long time and the stability, the rhythms and routines of these small districts often that are well aligned with community sentiment, or how much do we lean on the side of a more libertarian fund families, not systems allow essentially vouchers or ESAs to go everywhere, and so families to be in full control and kind of break down traditional longstanding arrangements and create their own ones.

And what I like to tell, especially younger people who are studying this issue, a good conservative argument can be made both in defense of small democratically controlled longstanding school districts that are well attuned to the priorities of the communities and families there and for a robust school choice approach that elevates voluntary associations, parental choice, diversity and education pluralism, and so forth. So what we’re seeing in the survey data that I alluded to earlier is the fact that America’s families are kind of in the same place. They like their public schools, but often they say we want some dramatic change. They gravitate back to their traditional public schools, but they’re saying, yeah, we would like options through these publicly funded private school choice programs. So they’re kind of on the fence or both sides of the fences as well.

So yes, we’re seeing a wave of private school choice programs, often these things called ESAs, Education Savings Accounts, vouchers, tuition tax credits, different kinds of means. This has grown over the past two years more than at any other time. There was a really good year for school choice, I think, back in 2010 in a way that there just hadn’t been before. For any of your listeners who don’t call this stuff closely, the first voucher program got started in the very early nineties in Milwaukee and then we had another one in DC, in Cleveland. They grew very slow and then Florida adopted tax credit programs because they had a state constitutional provision that wouldn’t allow to have vouchers. And then Indiana got into it. So slowly and slowly and slowly, states are developing more of these programs to the point where maybe right before COVID-19, half or more than half of states had some school choice legislation and many states had multiple school choice programs.

Like Florida had three or four or five, like a tax credit program for disadvantaged kids or an ESA style program for kids who had special needs. Ohio had two or three different types of programs. So prior to COVID-19, it was something like 65 or 70 different private school choice programs, each of which had different parameters around them. And we’re seeing maybe dozens of new programs on top of that because of COVID-19. Now, how expansive those programs are, who they serve, what they allow, the devil is in the detail with some of that, but we are certainly seeing or moving into an era where there are going to be more programs, allowing more families to make more choices. But as conservatives, what we also have to think is what does that mean for the families who really like their traditional public schools, who feel like their schools are parts of their communities?

Well, we don’t want to be, or I’ll speak for myself, I don’t want to be viewed as an elitist who is not listening to the will of the people. I’m a policy guy and I could say school choice for all, but if families are saying, listen, here in Poughkeepsie or in Des Moines, we like our traditional public schools. Why are you an outsider trying to change everything for us? So I think we have to try as conserve to balance these things. And could be a great winning political issue if we can recognize both the value of choice and pluralism and differentiation and the value of longstanding democratically controlled local institutions that meet America’s pluralism differences, different sets of priorities all across America and therefore the sense of the urgency and efficacy that communities get from being in control.

Reinsch: This might be a good way to segue in a micro schooling in this sense because as I listen to you talk about institutions and not prematurely undermining them, education I would argue, and I don’t argue this is a libertarian, I’m not a libertarian, is about people and about persons and interpersonal contact and instruction. And that’s what we’re primarily concerned about is developing the individual in the various capacities education provides. And that is why I have always favored choice and competition within schooling because it’s the best way to facilitate that process and to not get bogged down in what I think has become the worst element of our public schools, which is… And as I hear you, a question in my mind is even though these institutions might have a school board, I mean, they do have a school board and there’s a raucous debate, it does seem to me that most school systems are centrally controlled by a state department of education or some such agency or commission and isn’t really that robust and decentralized on the big questions and issues of what’s going to be taught.

And then you couple that in with progressive teacher colleges and the sorts of instruction they’re receiving there, which I don’t think is top notch and I think is now trending towards heavily ideological instruction. So the micro schooling phenomenon which you’ve been focusing on as a part of education after COVID-19, during and after COVID-19, talk about that and that sort of direct instruction that’s going on there.

Smarick: Okay. Do you mind if I just say a word about that question, which is, I think that a lot of people have the same sense that you do, but from my practical experience working inside a bunch of different levels of government, I saw it differently. So I worked at the White House under the George W. Bush administration in the domestic policy council work on education issues. And I got to tell you, no matter how brilliant a scheme we came up with, we had to realize that there were 50 states and 13,500 school districts and hundred thousand plus schools and millions of classrooms, yet people thought that the federal government had all this power, but our ability to influence things actually in schools and in classrooms was really de minimis. Then when I worked both on a state board of education, but I was also New Jersey’s deputy commissioner of education, in New Jersey, there were something like 600 school districts.

So some people thought the state department of education had all this power, but we couldn’t monitor all 600 school districts, let alone the thousands and thousands of schools across all the state, let alone that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of classrooms. And even when I was on the board of a charter school, as a board member, I didn’t know what was happening in the school in every classroom every day. So this is just to say that, yes, on big things like standards and standardized assessments and accountability systems, things that get a lot of publicity, there is central control, but never underestimate the power of our decentralized system that teachers have a whole lot of control over what they’re teaching on a day to day basis. Principals have a whole lot of control over their schools. This decentralized system really does serve as a way of pluralism and blocking kind of technocratic centralized schemes we see.

So I don’t want to disagree with your point that there are a lot of centralized elements, but also want to give voice to the other thing that technocrats in central places often wish they had more control. One reason Common Core failed so badly or why standardized testing really ran into a roadblock five, 10 years ago is because families and teachers and principals just had had enough about it and there was no way for Washington DC or state capitals just to force their will. We had some delegated power in a good way that there was this revolt from the bottom up. Okay. So let me just say that if you want to respond-

Reinsch: No. I hear you. And as I think, No Child Left Behind, it seemed after a couple years, it didn’t have a lot of defenders.

Smarick: Correct.

Reinsch: And Common Core died. Although I’ve always wondered what’s the after report on Common Core. People rejected it, but versions of it found their way into states, educational approach going forward. And I think you’re right. The resistance to the Common Core was this realization that from parents, wow, I have no control and it’s all going to be a centralized system. And that really bothers me and it’s a lot of the instruction I don’t like. So, no, I take your point there. It seems to me, I mean, even thinking about textbooks, like the centralized approach of a textbook to education, as opposed to those of us who want the children to actually read books, real books is a problem in public schools. So that’s interesting. So on the micro school front, what’s going on there and does it have staying power after COVID-19?

Smarick: Okay. So let me do a couple definitional things early on and you can push me on this or we don’t have to get too precious about these technical definitions, but a micro school is literally what the name tells you. It’s a very small school. Definitions depending on who you’re talking to differ a little bit. Some people say it has to be fewer than 10 students. More conventionally, we’re talking about a couple dozen, certainly not in the hundreds. Often these schools are in the private school sector. Often they emanate from homeschooling so they’re much more free and organic and nimble than what we might see as a traditional private school or let alone a charter school or a public school that’s part of the public system. They can get up and running more quickly and they have fewer regulations and they predate COVID-19. There were a number of operators like Wildflower or Prenda that were helping these getting started.

But also they have a pedigree in American history, like the famous one classroom school, school house, which isn’t just like a myth that existed in a lot of places. It was less than a hundred years ago that there were more than a hundred thousand school districts in America, many of them had just one school. So America has sort of like in its DNA a sense of small learning environments that are controlled by maybe one or two teachers, but also controlled by families. So a lot of these were getting up and running prior to COVID-19. Also something that some people may not realize is although homeschooling had really grown in the seventies, eighties, nineties, getting up to a couple million kids, homeschooling was never really just about parents and their handful of kids that were their own kids in their school. Before COVID-19, the most recent survey, a federal survey found that right around half of homeschooled kids were getting some or all of their instruction from a hired teacher or through some sort of co-op.

So already homeschooling families were binding together into something that looked like a micro school, maybe five, maybe 10 kids learning with one or more adults getting most of their education in that means. So this phenomenon, small learning communities really oriented around the needs of families and kids was growing and then COVID-19 hit when 50 million students suddenly had to find something different because their schools were shut down. And that’s when we saw the rise of pods, which I can define if you’d like, and hubs and hybrid homeschooling and also micro schooling. This is just a wonderful Tocquevillian response, spontaneous order to a calamitous situation where all these parents were saying, heavens, we just need new options for our kids because they’re not getting anything, and I still have to work. And so rather than waiting for the government to solve it, social entrepreneurs and parents and philanthropists got a bunch of these up and running and kids started, although not learning perfectly, but we saw more micro schools, more pods, more hubs.

It was exciting in a sense. It’s a shame that it came about through the calamity of a pandemic, but there was a lot of social energy in a way that is very American.

Reinsch: Do you see the pods go continuing or the micro schools and all that means continuing now?

Smarick: Yes. So it’s an open question. The survey data we have so far is that most parents are gravitating back to their previous schools now that they feel like the pandemic’s effects are going away, even if too slowly. But some number, and I can’t tell you if this is 5%, 10%, 50%, are going to stick with something new and they might use pods and hubs and micro schools as a supplement or compliment to their traditional public school. So a pod is generally thought of as something that some number of families create outside of the traditional public school or private school that they’re attending. So maybe you do online learning in your traditional public setting, but then after school, families rotate helping a group of kids learn. A lot of families have liked that and we probably saw millions of students, the data’s hard to get, but millions of students participating in that.

Reinsch: Well, I was thinking just one question too is parents going back to work, maybe some parents, there’s a number of families where maybe one parent doesn’t go back to work or stays part-time. Having been home for a while and I’ve wondered how that might affect education because the public schools are actually really helpful for two income families from just a utilitarian sense. So that’s one question I’ve had. And also, is there a conscious desire? We know we’re a micro school and we want stay a micro school. And I ask that because the classical school movement as it takes off continues to grow. What I have observed is they tend to start with a collection of half a dozen, dozen homeschool families, all of whom have like four or five kids each and they start pooling resources and then they decide to create a school, that we’re actually an established school. And before it, they’ve got 150, 200 students, but it started with that nucleus.

And I’m wondering, are a lot of these micro schools that early on a new creation, or we’re just small and we’re just like the people that I know in this neighborhood and that’s it?

Smarick: Yes, you’ve got it exactly right. And I keep going back to history to make sure people realize that what we’re seeing is unusual in the sense that we haven’t had to see something like this in quite some time, but it fits the American character. I mean, you can think of American public education as a story, at least since the common school’s movement of some kind of technocratic professionalizers who want to make sure that the public education is homogenous, is as micromanaged as possible to get the results that sort of like elites, what the progressive era called the best men of society wanted. But then constantly along the way, there being these micro revolts. First, it was Catholics in 1888 who decided that they didn’t like what was happening in public schools and the bishops of America said, every parish has to create its own Catholic school to protect its Catholic students. And then by 1965, there were 13,000 Catholic school serving more than five million kids.

We saw this in the first half of the 20th century. We saw this during chartering, when families wanted new public school options. They didn’t like what their district was doing. We saw this in response to Common Core. We saw this as homeschooling. We saw this with online schooling. And so I always like to give people a sense of optimism because it’s easy to see some video or read some stories and think American public education, K12 is just falling apart, what’s happening, but more and more and more and more over time, families have more options, inner district choice, intra district choice. What we call disaggregated services, being in a school, but maybe taking some of your courses from different providers. We have micro schools, different types of charter schools, private school choice programs, micro school hybrid homeschooling options, the pods, the hubs. All of these things, to your point, start with a small number of families saying we want something different.

And then either using the public policies that are available to create something different or they just go outside of the policy realm and do it themselves. So when you and I were growing up, well, I don’t want to date myself too much, but when my parents were growing up in the post war era, Cold War era, I mean, the vast, vast majority of families were in traditional public schools and kids were assigned public schools based on their home address and you didn’t really have much choice. Heck, 50 years, 60 years before that, there were some states that tried to ban private schools and the US Supreme Court had to step in. But today we have this wide array of voucher, tax credit, ESA programs, charters, micro schools, pods, hubs, more ability for philanthropists to help create schools or parents to do things. Things are not perfect, but I don’t want people to be downcast about this.

Reinsch: The way I see it is education in America had not caught up with how America had changed, was a few decades behind. I attribute that largely to the teacher unions and to the ways in which they’ve been able to insulate themselves from a lot of market change. But it seems COVID-19 may have sped forward that process that was already occurring. I also think about how odd it was when I was growing up that certain kids were homeschooled and we just thought that was kind of weird. I won’t say homeschooling is now mainstream, but it’s certainly not odd.

Smarick: It’s not odd.

Reinsch: And it’s not looked down upon either. It was sort of strange and it’s more diverse. It isn’t just highly religious families choosing to homeschool. There’s a lot more people choosing homeschool for different reasons. So coming back to always my primordial fear, do you see states taking notice of the micro school phenomenon and wanting to jump on it? I think about homeschooling. The Home School Legal Defense Fund had to fight a number of court victories really to make homeschooling legal and operational for many families. Do you see a similar process with the micro schooling?

Smarick: Such a great question. So yes and no, again, depending on jurisdiction. One reason I point out in my report, and I think I alluded to this maybe 10 minutes ago is that it’s easier or better to think of micro schooling as coming out of the homeschooling world or the private school world, as opposed to the public school world. Although there are instances, like our Idaho report pointed this out where Idaho passed a law that rather than doing an ESA, Education Savings Account program that would allow families to really have total control over a bunch of state money, they gave school districts the ability to create micro schools inside of the system. So there’s one way to answer your question of is the state or is the government going to try to co-opt micro schooling? In this sense, this feels a lot to me like what happened at chartering 20 years ago, where a bunch of states and districts were worried that nonprofits were running schools that families really liked and districts said, oh, we can do that too.

And so they tried to start to do chartering as well. We see this in the private sector all the time where a disruptive innovation comes along and existing firms try to adopt that practice. They almost never do it as well, but it’s a way of kind of taking the energy away from the innovation on the outside. So that’s one thing that could happen that micro schooling is sort of adopted or the system tries to take it over. The other thing that we’re seeing is some states try to pass the number of laws, regulations that make micro schooling even in the private school sector or in the homeschool sector more difficult. And this is regulations related to site visits, to credentialed teachers, to facilities, inspections, just a way for the government to, in their view, make sure micro schooling is safe, but really starts to feel like a heavy handed regulation.

Smarick: Now, a lot of states push back on that because of Supreme court decisions and some state laws and constitutions protecting homeschooling and private schooling. A lot of places, it will be protected, but never underestimate the ability of states to try to say, oh, that’s an innovation. How can we regulate it?

Reinsch: Yes. The charter school example also, the charter schools were successful. Oh, let’s try to reimpose our own rules and regulations on them to make them like us to sort of curtail that, and in some instances they were successful. It seems to me it’s just becoming increasingly hard to deny parents an array of options, and I think that’s been a theme of our discussion that it just really can’t be denied for too much longer. Andy Smarick, as you look upon education after COVID-19 in America, your assessment is that micro schooling phenomenon is clearly one cause in effect, perhaps the education choice bills being another. Anything else?

Smarick: Well, I would just say that the more I’ve worked in education inside of the government, the actually more optimistic I am that there can be a lot of stories that systems are going off the rails and there are leaders who just don’t care about kids. Yes, there are terrible stories in places, but I think most administrators and certainly most teachers care a great deal of about kids and most of them care about communities as well. So I think that there’s a lot of good news to be told, but there’s also great news along the lines that we’ve been talking about, which is there are more policy options and there’s more energy, social entrepreneurialism to create different types of schools. And we’re seeing this at the higher education level as well and this is the American spirit. How do we preserve these small conservative democratically controlled units while also respecting pluralism and choice and differentiation and competition?

And so we’re trying like a great American experiment, hold onto both of these at the same time and we’re seeing more families taking more control of more schools. And because of that, we’re seeing a diverse array of options. I don’t think any time in American history have there been more options and more families who can exercise more choice at the K12 level than right now. Even though the general storyline is things are terrible everywhere, well, charter laws are in the vast majority of states and are these probably 70 or 80 private school choice programs and micro schools and online schooling. There are more options and more outlets. We need to continue to be diligent and fight this fight, but I don’t want anyone to be downcast. There’s a real opportunity for people to not just write sub stack newsletters or go on podcasts like this, but go create a school if you would like to, go on the board of a school, donate to a school, try to create new options.

Or if you love your local school district, become part of the PTA or PTO or regularly go to the school board. This is American democracy, both the social entrepreneurialism Tocquevillian civil society side, but also the small deliberative democracy part. People should have hope. This is exciting. This is what it means to be an active American citizen.

Reinsch: Andy, thank you for leaving us with hope on the education front. I think this has been a great conversation.

Smarick: You’re terrific. Thanks always for having me.

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