Communities + Families + Recovery Funds = Innovation

·4 min read

COVID-19 school shock disrupted our way of doing education, unbundling the familiar division of responsibilities among home, school and community organizations.

Nearly every parent of school-age children had to create from scratch a home learning environment using online technology, rebundling school services to meet their needs.


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Most parents accepted whatever teaching, learning and support services their district offered, supporting their child’s learning as best they could.

Other parents sought new learning options.

A study from Tyton Partners calculates that during the 2020-21 school year, 15 percent of parents changed their child’s school, a rate 50 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels. Overall, 2.6 million students exited district and private schools, enrolling in charter schools, homeschooling, microschools and other options. Thirteen percent of families also enrolled their child in small learning pods, supplementing traditional school.

In doing so, these parents exercised their agency to work with like-minded community members, many of whom were outside the current K-12 system — call them civic entrepreneurs — to create new organizations or expand existing ones to meet this demand.

There is now an unprecedented amount of K-12 federal dollars — around $190 billion and counting from three new pandemic-related programs — for people and programs to remedy the huge academic, social and emotional toll that COVID-19 imposed on young people and their families, with 90 percent ($171 million) going to school districts. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that local districts may not exhaust stimulus dollars until 2028.

Related: Schooling Has Changed Forever. Here’s What Will Stay When Things Go Back to ‘Normal’

As John Bailey, American Enterprise Institute nonresident senior fellow, points out, this doesn’t embrace other flexible federal recovery benefits going to state and local governments that can be used for many purposes, including education. He counts in this the American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit, now going to 35 million families and totaling some $15 billion, with the majority of payments being issued via direct deposit. He points out that 10 percent of families reporting on how they use these funds designate an educational use, including tutoring, tuition, afterschool programs and school supplies.

How should K-12 stakeholders and other community members think about using this unparalleled influx of new K-12 and other dollars to support students and families?

I believe that states and localities have two ways to mobilize their local communities beginning now and continuing into the future. The first way is what I call bureaucratic mobilization, and the second is what I call family mobilization.

While these two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, they imply different starting points, different actors and different directions when developing priorities and prescribing intervention points, remedies and a pathway forward for K-12 schooling. They can — and should — be used jointly.

The first approach has the usual K-12 stakeholders — e.g., state departments of education, local school districts, superintendents, teachers unions, etc. They’re programmed to do what they usually do, especially in a time of crisis, when they get additional money from the usual revenue sources: preserve their vested interests.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education says as much about this approach in its review of initial plans for K-12 federal COVID-19 emergency relief spending in 100 large and urban districts: “Districts appear to be doubling down on what they know: more time [on task for students], more staff, more capital spending.”

Related: Manno: Parents, Civic Entrepreneurs Rebuild K-12 Schooling from Scratch in a Way That’s Student-Focused, Parent-Directed and Pluralistic

The second approach has some of the traditional stakeholders, but many more who are not: for example, parents seeking new schooling alternatives, nonprofit leaders, other concerned citizens and community leaders. They are driven to do something different to achieve a common goal, working around aspects of the existing K-12 institutional framework. These mostly K-12 outsiders come together voluntarily to expand or develop new capabilities and capacities, either through an existing organization or by creating a new one. To start, what they do is often typically messy and coordinated badly, if at all, with the traditional K-12 bureaucracy.

A new analysis by Bellwether Education Partners gives initial insight into one category of these civic actors, the parents of what it calls “the overlooked”: an estimated 10.8 million students — 1 in 5 of the nation’s school children — whose families didn’t get what they wanted from their child’s school over the last 18 months. These comprise three distinct groups, designated as the movers, the missing and the muted. In short, parents moved their child to a new schooling option; chose not to enroll a child in formal schooling, making them missing from school; or were muted because they couldn’t access the educational setting they preferred.

Movers + Missing + Muted = The Overlooked.

Related: Spurrier: Homeschooling Is on the Rise. What Should That Teach Education Leaders About Families’ Preferences?

COVID-19 shock threw longstanding arrangements among home, school and community institutions into disarray. As states and communities begin to use their new federal resources, they should employ both mobilization approaches as they work to support families and students. This effort reflects a distinctive American understanding of politics: local civic engagement across the entire community supporting collective action for the common good.

This opportunity is not lost on K-12 leaders. Deborah Gist, superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says: “None of us … ever wanted to go through this. [But] we have a chance now to make it something that will change teaching and learning forever for the better.”

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program. Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74 and to Tyton Partners.

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