Education reformers can squeeze some good from COVID-19 lemons

By Mitch Kokai

Raleigh, NC – Now is a good time for lemonade. At least that’s true of metaphorical lemonade squeezed from life’s lemons.

children having their exam
Photo by Arthur Krijgsman

COVID-19 has produced plenty of lemons in North Carolinians’ lives. We ought to look for ways to transform those sour lemons into refreshing lemonade. One opportunity for transformation involves our approach to education.

“Twenty-one percent of our kids are in schools of choice right now.” Terry Stoops, the John Locke Foundation’s vice president for research and director of education studies, delivered that statistic during a recent virtual town hall.

“We know that there’s a strong demand for choice,” Stoops added. He cited as evidence the July 1 crash of a state homeschooling website. The site aimed to help families looking into homeschooling options.

“Kudos to the General Assembly for expanding choice over the last 10 years to provide unprecedented private school opportunities and charter school opportunities to our kids,” Stoops said. “We need more.”

Stoops discussed the role of school choice during a time of uncertainty linked to COVID-19. “If the goal is to spread kids out — if we need to ‘social distance’ — then one way to achieve that is to spread the kids out into different schools,” he said.

Not all N.C. families can afford to shift their children from public to private schools. Nor can they all choose to homeschool students. “That’s why I think choice is important,” Stoops said. “If the idea is to spread kids out, then let’s spread them out. Let’s use school choice as the way that we do that.”

Trends already have demonstrated an increased reliance on alternatives to traditional district schools, Stoops said. In homeschooling alone, Stoops predicted roughly a 7% increase to 160,000 students statewide in the upcoming academic year.

Other participants in the virtual town hall agreed COVID-19 could spark a major rethinking of conventional wisdom about education.

“it’s intensifying, I think, the understanding of just how different each student learns right now,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, who chairs state Senate education and education budget committees. “This has definitely hit the role of the parent now. … This has affected parents’ lives like upside down.”

“Sometimes parents think they can just send their kids off to get educated,” Ballard added. “Now they’re actually having to take an active role in the students’ instruction and their learning. If anything, what’s been interesting is just to see how much that has impacted the thinking and the thought process and the decision making. Parents are making [education] more of a priority than they have before in some households.”

Ballard labels this internal family discussion “critical.” “We have to remember at the heart of school choice is really those families and those parents understanding what’s in the best interest of their family, their kids.”

COVID-19 has provided “valuable insights” to parents, Ballard said. “Parents [are] stepping up and realizing, ‘Oh, my goodness, I have even more appreciation for the teacher now, and the principal and the school,’” she said. “Or, ‘Oh, man, I love what I’m doing with my kid. Maybe I will do homeschooling.’ Or ‘Ooh, I like what this school format is.’”

Ballard wants to “formalize or dive into that personalized learning model more thoroughly.” She doesn’t expect easy answers. “It’s tough,” she said. “It’s a heavy lift.”

The N.C. State Board of Education focuses most of its attention on traditional K-12 district schools. But board member Olivia Oxendine also discussed alternatives to those district schools during the virtual town hall.

“It’s hard to see the upside to a pandemic — it’s impossible,” Oxendine said. “But if there’s anything like a glass half full, it is that we are rethinking the education of children in North Carolina and around the globe perhaps.”

A recent chat with neighbors offered Oxendine evidence of this rethinking. “Young parents thinking about what is called a cottage school,” she explained of the neighborhood conversation. “It’s forming circles within neighborhoods or communities where someone — maybe a couple of retired teachers — come together and provide education” on days when students don’t attend traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms.

The pandemic is prompting innovation. “Out of the pandemic — even though it’s dreadful — it is forcing us to rethink how best to educate children in America,” Oxendine said.

Most discussion about school choice focuses on students, parents, and families. Increased access to choice helps teachers, too. “The idea is to give teachers just as many new opportunities as to give them to students and families,” Stoops said. “I think expanding choice is a way of giving teachers those new opportunities.”

Large-scale rethinking of education could mean tangible benefits for great teachers. “We need to really seriously start rethinking the way we pay teachers,” he said. “We have a one-size-fits-all, experience- and credential-based way of paying teachers, just like a lot of other states do. We need to start thinking about looking at other measures.”

Rethinking tied to COVID-19 could allow teachers to earn more money based on their effectiveness, additional duties, or advanced teaching roles. “These are models we’ve experimented with a little bit here in North Carolina, but we haven’t really scaled them up.”

Innovation. Experimentation. Scaling up good ideas. That’s the type of lemonade North Carolina ought to squeeze from COVID-19.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.