Educating During a Pandemic: More About Learning Pods and ESAs

COMMENTARY Education

Educating During a Pandemic: More About Learning Pods and ESAs

Sep 22nd, 2020 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Lindsey M. Burke, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Education Policy

Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues.
Some pods are formed to supplement the crisis-induced online instruction offered by the local school district. Others, called self-directed pods, provide full-time instruction. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Thousands of families banded together with others in their neighborhoods to form “pandemic pods.”

American taxpayers currently spend more than $700 billion annually on K-12 education, yet families have little say in where and how those funds are spent.

It’s difficult to find silver linings in 2020. But the way in which the pandemic has forced us to rethink how K-12 education is delivered is one of them.

Last spring, parents across the country became “accidental homeschoolers,” transforming kitchen tables into classrooms. Not all of them tried to go it alone. Thousands of families banded together with others in their neighborhoods to form “pandemic pods.”

These pods serve small groups of students, drawn from the same neighborhood or social circle, whose parents pool resources to hire a teacher or a private tutor. The children learn together in families’ homes, meeting anywhere from a few hours per week to five days out of the week.

Some pods are formed to supplement the crisis-induced online instruction offered by the local school district. Others, called self-directed pods, provide full-time instruction. Students in this type of pod unenroll from their public school and register (in states that require it) as homeschoolers. For these families, it’s pod-life or bust moving forward.

Recently, single-subject pods have emerged. Arizona mother Jenny Clark, who currently runs a pod she calls “Cottage Class,” is forming an additional pod this spring just for instruction in history and civics. Families looking for instruction in these subjects will be able to join this pod, which will accommodate children of different ages through differentiated instruction. As Jenny explains, “We found several families who had different needs than our current pod, so we are staying flexible and starting something new!” 

It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many families have formed pods in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Membership in the main Facebook group devoted to exchanging information about pods has soared to over 41,000 members. Parents on the group find other families in their neighborhoods with whom to form pods, discuss best practices for hiring and interviewing teachers, and provide guidance to one another on everything from academic content to extracurriculars. It’s civil society in action.

But we’re here to talk finances, so how much does it cost to participate in a pod, and how are parents paying for it?

There is no standardized pod price. Some pods form free of charge, and participating parents dedicate their time and talents, or space in their home as their contribution. Other families may contribute several hundred dollars or more a month to pay the pod teacher’s salary. So while pods are largely affordable, that does not mean they are affordable for all families, which is where policy reform enters the picture.

>>> A collection of education resources for schools and families

American taxpayers currently spend more than $700 billion annually on K-12 education, yet families have little say in where and how those funds are spent. Local, state, and federal education funding flows to public schools, rather than students, and children are assigned to those schools based on where their parents can afford to find a home. For the most part, children are assigned to district schools regardless of whether a given school is the right fit for them.

That has started to change in recent years, with pioneering states like Arizona allowing families to control the money that would have been spent on their children in their public school. In 2011, Arizona established its Empowerment Scholarship Program, which provides education savings accounts (ESA) to eligible students.

With an ESA, families receive 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding average. Those dollars go into a restricted-use, parent-controlled ESA that can then be used to pay for any education-related service, product, or provider. Parents can use their ESAs to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services, private tutors, and a host of other education-related expenses. Unused funds can even be rolled over from year-to-year, and can be rolled into a college savings account.

The flexibility of ESAs—enabling parents to direct how every dollar of their child’s state education funding is spent—are the perfect financing mechanism for pandemic pods. It’s as if they were designed with the pod future in mind—even though Arizona’s program (and the four other states that have ESAs) predated pods by years.

It’s difficult to find silver linings in 2020. But the way in which the pandemic has forced us to rethink how K-12 education is delivered is one of them. Parents are in control, and doing amazing things to provide education continuity to their children. Here’s hoping that’s a lasting change.

This piece originally appeared in Smart Women Smart Money