Are Microschools Going Macro?

Around the country it’s hard to miss a string of test-based admissions public schools under pressure to adopt different admission schemes in an effort to increase student diversity – for instance lottery-based or enrollment slots allocated by feeder school. (At one level it’s a useful reminder that contra the rhetoric, many public schools are not open-admissions for all students. The system is more textured than the rhetoric about it.)

The debate in New York City over the city’s selective high schools was pretty high-profile. More recently, in Fairfax County the nationally known Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, or “TJ” to locals, just changed its admission scheme after a contentious debate. San Francisco’s Lowell is moving that direction. Definitely a trend.

It’s not hard to see why this is happening. The slow difficult work of ensuring equitable access to resources, teachers, curriculum, and the other ingredients of high quality and inclusive schooling is a politically contentious slog fought at every step by a variety of people for a variety of reasons – and not just the people you might think. Meanwhile, the very structure of the system is often not set up to support equity. There is of course resistance to changing admissions requirements, too, but it’s more easily defeated, especially right now.

Most agree kids don’t have an equal shot at these coveted schools in some places. The core question is whether the best solution is to change the specific schools or change the system of schools and other supports leading to the outcomes we see. Politically, the schools’ admission methods are obviously the weaker link. And while there is a temptation to frame this all in purely racial terms, in all of these places the debates don’t break down so cleanly. Possible outcomes don’t either. In the case of Thomas Jefferson there is a reasonable chance, depending on who uses the lottery, the school will end up being more white after these reforms while also having fewer Asian students and more Black and Hispanic students than today.

Perhaps this will usher in a new era of schooling with benefits we’re not realizing right now. That’s the ‘lottery admissions for Harvard’ case and it’s not crazy. Assuming every critic of these schools is caught up in a 2020 Marxist fervor of wokeness misreads the landscape. The debates about this kind of school are long running. So are conversations about the various tradeoffs. Advocates of change are just wisely sensing that this is a good moment to make a move.*

Alternatively, it might also, if history is any guide, drive some parents to seek options elsewhere. These magnet options are highly coveted. Where might parents go? Obviously private is one place but not an accessible option for everyone. Charters are also an option where they exist, they’re free and sometimes theme focused as well. BASIS is a good example of a specialized school in this vein that appeals to a set of parents looking for specific attributes in a school around academics.

Another option I’d keep an eye on is low-cost privates and microschools. Pods seem to be more of a phenomena on social media than in communities, but it’s not hard to envision microschools and low-cost privates being more attractive to a lot of parents after the pandemic – and more sustainable. Here’s an analysis on those schools from Julie Squire, Melissa Steel King, and Justin Trinidad.

Let’s assume for a moment Joe Biden wins the White House in two weeks and Democrats take control of the Senate plus a workable majority of seats. One theory is that there would then be enough centrist senators that charter policy would be sort of sleepy. Another theory is that charter schools are a place where there will be a lot of pressure given dynamics inside the Democratic party and what Democrats see as an imperative to rollback a series of blows to organized labor, not the least of them Janus in our sector. If this comes to pass it will fuel the idea that schools operating outside the system and its regulatory and political reach, low-cost private options, are the place system disrupters should focus their energy.

And they will find a willing audience. At Bellwether earlier this month we asked 1234 adults about whether the pandemic experience with schools had made them more, less, or the same in terms of their openness to greater school choice in their community. Almost half of parents (49%) and half of women (47%) said more. Other polls indicate some frustration here. I’d watch that, too, especially if post-election a bidding war breaks out among Republican 2024 hopefuls around school choice and the idea gets airtime.

If all this results in more quality options for kids, that’s great. But if it lessens the pressure and urgency to improve the public system overall and drives parents from it, then this may be one more reason we don’t look back fondly at 2020.

*Bonus edutrivia: I am pretty sure Dave Grohl’s (of Scream, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters fame and occasional ed commentator) mom was among the teachers who fought the initial conversion of TJ into a magnet back in the 1980s, which was controversial at the time.

Note: Apologies for the really sloppy early draft that ended up inadvertently posted earlier. No substantive changes but this version cleaned up.