A Beautiful Tree Grows in America

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“All the golden ages, as we’ve seen in Athens and Hangzhou, contain an element of free for all, a chink in time when the old order has crumbled and a new one is not yet cemented,” Eric Weiner wrote. “It’s a jump ball, and that’s when creative genius thrives, when everything is up for grabs.” We are living through just this sort of period concerning American education, and the pace of the game has accelerated.

What is underway in America now has precedent overseas. James Tooley described how low-income communities in India and Africa had created widespread low-cost private schools in his 2013 book The Beautiful Tree. Tooley was at times greeted by officials who assured him that there were no private schools in an area, only to discover later that most students actually attended such schools.

Tooley found that communities had access to public schools. Still, those public schools were so dysfunctional that impoverished people would pay tuition from their limited means to ensure their children received an education. Nine years and one global pandemic later, America has its own beautiful tree growing, as parents now seek all sorts of K-12 alternatives.

The seeds of a more pluralistic K-12 sector took root well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic American public schools were of wildly uneven quality. International examinations of student achievement found American students fell increasingly behind Asian and European students as they advanced through the system, an effect seen most in America’s Black and Hispanicstudents.

The top performers in American achievement scored more like a run-of-the-mill European country, like Estonia. But American schools greatly outspend run-of-the-mill European countries on K-12 education. In addition, upper-income Americans spend a great deal on enrichment activities out of their own pockets, including tutors, Kumon, summer camps, private lessons, Mathnasium, club sports and far more. If you’ve ever felt exhausted by driving your kids around after school, or compared notes with other parents on this, you have been a part of this trend. Scholars have documented upper-income Americans spending approximately $9,000 per child per year on enrichment. How much credit do leafy suburban schools deserve for the non-embarrassing scores? No one can say for sure.

The significance of the enrichment trend only became apparent after the onset of the pandemic. Advantaged American families still paid exorbitant mortgage ransoms to access the best public schools, but they were not entirely relying upon those schools. When the pandemic struck, millions of parents decided not to rely on their district schools.

A study by Tyton Partners found that more than 15 percent of families switched their children’s school for the 2020-21 academic year. Charter schools, homeschooling, learning pods, and micro-schools all realized net increases. The pandemic catalyzed the growth of supplemental learning pods (a cohort of students gathering in a small group, with adult supervision and outside the framework of their traditional physical or virtual classrooms) to learn, explore, and socialize. Households spent an estimated $20 billion more annually on education-related activities, primarily stemming from the emergence of supplemental learning pods.

American families got a look into the digital classrooms of their children. Many did not like what they saw. Controversies broke out over in-person learning and masking, and then transitioned into battles over curriculum and social issues.

John Stuart Mill warned of the dangers of forever culture wars over schooling, describing diversity of education to be of “unspeakable importance.” Mill further warned:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.

While some district leaders wisely attempted to calm such controversies by emphasizing that they taught state academic standards, the unions dove headlong into the controversies. Meanwhile, the National School Board Association lobbied federal authorities to brand parents protesting at school board meetings as “domestic terrorists.” This angered parents and ended poorly for the Association. As both right and left clamor for control in what looks like a forever culture war, Mill’s warning seems more prescient than ever.

As the pandemic wore on, many public schools became increasingly similar to the schools that Tooley discovered that parents in India and Africa shunned. Public schools sat on billions in federal relief dollars, but students were left stranded at bus stops. Long before the pandemic, fewer and fewer college students enrolled in colleges of education. Since the pandemic, fewer students are attending college at all.

Lawmakers have been busy passing policies to satisfy the family demand for schooling options outside of one-size-fit-few districts. State lawmakers enacted seven new educational choice programs, and expanded 21 existing ones, in 2021. Major choice advances moved forward in Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio and West Virginia.

Arizona lawmakers expanded eligibility to the nation’s first Education Savings Account to all students, choice advocates saw major court victories, and primary voters retired several choice opponents in 2022. In October of 2022, a universal expansion of Education Savings Accounts survived a ballot challenge in Arizona, which was followed quickly by a victory for choice supporters in the West Virginia Supreme Court.

“Diversity. Pluralism. Variety…” Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted in 1978. “We cherish these values, and I do not believe it excessive to ask that they be embodied in our national policies for American education.” Better late than never education pluralism has clearly taken root, and it’s flourishing.

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