It wasn't long ago that "normal" schooling meant public school, understood as some variation on the theme of classes punctuated by the sound of a bell, lunch in a cafeteria, and detours to run around with beat-up gym equipment. Catholic kids had similar experiences at parochial schools and some mostly rich kids went to private academies. Anything else was a little weird and required explanation. But, accelerated by pandemic-era stresses, innovations in recent years brought big changes to education. The biggest change of all is probably the growing acceptance won by charters, homeschooling, and a host of flexible approaches to teaching kids as the old model loses its luster.
Just how much the world has changed came home to me when the tech at my eye doctor's office asked about my son, who attended a charter school with her daughter when the kids were younger. I mentioned that he was thriving as a homeschooler and had just started a laboratory biology class at the community college. Her daughter was also homeschooled, she told me. The girl was technically enrolled in the public high school now, but that was mostly to gain access to community college courses. Her daughter already had two years of college credits put away.
"Northern Arizona University offered her a free ride for the last two years," she told me.
This conversation would have been almost unthinkable when I was in school. But the world has morphed dramatically since then, especially when it comes to our attitude towards education.
"How have your opinions on homeschooling changed as a result of the coronavirus?" EdChoice asks parents every month. In December 2021, 68 percent of respondents reported that they are more favorable to homeschooling than they were before the pandemic. Only 18 percent are less favorable.
It's not just homeschooling. The same survey finds rising support (70 percent) for education savings accounts which allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds to pay for education expenses, school vouchers (65 percent) by which public education funds follow students to the schools of their choice, and publicly funded but privately run charter schools (68 percent) like the one my son attended through third grade.
"Support for school choice in America continues to soar," agreed survey findings published last summer by the American Federation for Children.
These alternatives were developed and building support long before COVID-19 emerged as a viral menace in early 2020. But the pandemic accelerated growing discontent with schools that were already widely seen as rigid, politicized, and ineffective. School officials who found educating kids a challenge in good times left kids high and dry in the midst of a public health crisis.
"That school systems have struggled to adapt to these unfamiliar conditions is understandable," Alex Spurrier of Bellwether Education Partners noted last September. "But for millions of families, their willingness to tolerate institutional sclerosis in their children's education is starting to wear thin."
"I…and everybody in our community can no longer count on the public schools," Jennifer Reesman, a Maryland mom, told NPR in November. "And I feel like after the last year and a half, there was a lot of that sentiment that this is just not something we can count on."
So, families that had never before considered alternatives sent their kids to charters or shelled out tuition for private schools. Others tried their hands at homeschooling or joined with other families to set up learning pods and microschools. And, as the polling numbers make clear, they became increasingly open to these alternatives and to policies that make it easier to escape closed classrooms, mask requirements, incompetent implementation of distance learning, and escalating curriculum battles.
If you and your friends are dissatisfied with "normal" education and are giving the competition a try, it's impossible to continue to think of homeschooling, charters, and other innovations as weird. And, as families go, so goes the culture in which they participate and the institutions with which they interact.
"Each applicant to Harvard College is considered with great care and homeschooled applicants are treated the same as all other applicants," the Ivy League school specifies in its application requirements.
"William & Mary is happy to accept and review applications from students who have been home-schooled," the prestigious Virginia state school notes on a page devoted to such applicants.
In taking college admission tests traditionally required (though becoming less prevalent) for college applications "homeschooled students can register for the SAT online or on paper, just like any other student," says the College Board.
Private schools long ago gained acceptance among colleges and employers alike; the big change for them has been the number of families looking at policies that would make such alternatives more accessible. And even before the pandemic, charter schools won wide respect by successfully sending their graduates through college at a higher rate than traditional public schools.
"And while charter leaders don't want to stir up more controversy by saying it out loud, the implication is clear: Traditional high schools need to get on board with the same goal," Richard Whitmire wrote for education publication The 74 in 2017.
Employers are harder to pin down in terms of attitudes towards students and graduates from other than traditional public schools since there are so many of them with diverse viewpoints. But the local supermarket certainly didn't balk at my son's background and his bosses appreciate the resulting flexibility. The only challenge has been reining-in their enthusiasm for his availability when so many adults aren't looking for work and traditionally schooled teens are in class. His experience is likely to be replicated around the country after what many people term a "historic" year for school choice, with more innovations to come.
"Wealthier parents always have an alternative. But many middle- and lower-income families don't," Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) observed in her state of the state address earlier this month. "Which is why I'll be introducing legislation that allows middle- and low-income families and students with an individualized educational plan to receive a portion of the 'per pupil' funds allocated annually by the state to move their child to the education system of their choice."
As is often the case with big changes, success will be best measured by the degree to which education options that were once unthinkable become casually accepted parts of our everyday conversations.