As a new school year begins amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many Iowa parents are juggling working from home and facilitating their children’s online education. Schools across Iowa are offering a hybrid of in-class and online instruction. Many parents in Iowa have selected to have their children start school online for the fall semester as a result of the virus. A recent trend in education is the formation of micro-schools or education pods. Education pods are small, sometimes with no more than a dozen students. These schools resemble the one-room schoolhouses our grandparents attended.
The Des Moines Register reported that a Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) student is initiating a “pod-learning program” this fall. The student will serve as a tutor to a “limited number of students, all seated 10 feet apart, to guide them through online lessons taught by Des Moines teachers.” This pod will serve a need of not only helping students through their online courses, but also helping parents along the way. This is just one example of a pod serving the educational needs during an uncertain time.
Education Week described some of the common characteristics of education pods:
- No more than 150 students, but are often smaller (10-12 students)
- Multiple ages learn together in a single classroom
- Teachers act more as guides than lecturers
- Heavy emphasis on digital and project-based learning
- Education is highly personalized
Education pods are being considered by parents as a “supplement” to their children’s online education. The structure of these pods can vary, but they often consist of parents pooling resources to hire a teacher or tutor, either on a full-time or part-time basis.
A major concern with education pods is affordability. Wealthier families will have an easier time affording a pod, but what about those families in the middle and lower classes? “The U.S. spends $15,424 per child per year in the public school system,” noted Corey A. DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation. The recent United States Census data on education finance reports, Iowa spent $11,732 per pupil in 2018.
For all Iowa parents to take advantage of an education pod, policymakers could either pass legislation creating an Education Saving Account (ESA) or utilize funds from the federal CARES Act as part of the COVID-19 recovery stimulus. Directing CARES funds would be a limited solution. “Several states across the country have provided, or are considering providing, emergency education savings accounts to families, allowing them to take a portion of their child’s public education funds to private tutoring or online options of choice,” stated Lindsey M. Burke, Director, Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
The purpose of an ESA is to allow education tax dollars to follow the student rather than going to a designated school. An ESA provides parents with the flexibility to customize education to fit the needs of their children. This includes not only choosing which school their child attends, but also purchasing other educational services, including educational pods.
COVID-19 and the increasing popularity of educational pods has brought attention to the importance of education funding following students rather than schools. A quality education should not be prevented by zip codes or lack of financial resources. Education dollars should be funding students, not institutions, benefitting all families.
“Families would be able to afford tuition and fees at many private schools — or they could use those dollars to offset the costs of home-based education of various types ranging from virtual charter schools to micro-schools to homeschooling,” stated DeAngelis.
Education pods are just one example of recent innovations in education as a response to COVID-19. It is time for Iowa to expand school choice opportunities. The Wall Street Journal, in a recent editorial stated, 2020 is the “year of school choice.” Perhaps this will be one positive that emerges from the pandemic, providing parents in Iowa and throughout the nation the flexibility to choose what is the best education for their children.