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Pandemic Pods and Micro-schools Shine a Light on Existing Disparities, “Opportunity Hoarding”

July 18, 2020

Washington Post writers Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson describe the latest trend among affluent parents: banding together to hire teachers to offer instruction in their homes. Variously called “pandemic pods” or “micro-schools” this new arrangement sounds eerily similar to the Network School model I described nearly two decades ago with one key difference: the government is not tipping the scales to prevent the parents of affluent children from offering their children a substantially superior education to the children of parents who struggle to earn enough to feed, clothe, and shelter their children.

The notion of parents with mutual interests banding together to help support their children is nothing new. Both of my daughters ran on high school teams a charismatic coaches persuaded the parents to pool resources to buy equipment for the team that supplemented the school budget and helped organize gatherings of parents to help develop camaraderie on the team. A group of friends pooled resources to hire a local woman who was a story teller and musician to provide weekly enrichment sessions for our preschoolers. Moreover, because we enjoyed trips to museums and parks when we were growing up, we took our children to them regularly and often brought along a friend whose parents might reciprocate. I am certain that many readers of this blog have participated in similar school-related parent groups and engaged in similar family activities with their children. Somehow, though, pooling resources with other parents to hire a teacher to supplement online instruction feels different. Mss. Meckler and Natanson  capture this sense of ambivalence AND the different reactions to it with a couple of quotes:

In Portland, Oregon, Laura Sutherland came upon a new Facebook group called “Portland Micro-Schools,” with nearly 1,000 members, and could not believe what she saw.

She thinks sending her 6-year-old daughter back to school would be unsafe, and she knows her daughter will need supervision while learning from home. But Sutherland said she would quit her job — and struggle financially — to help her daughter before she would hire someone from the outside.

“It just seems really privileged,” she said.

(Katie) Franklin, in Fairfax, said she’s mindful of these concerns but is not letting them stop her. “We can pay,” she said. “We know others can’t, and there will be a gap, and that’s unfortunate.”

While this makes the Fairfax parent sound smug and elitist, it reflects an underlying reality of our existing school funding system and the existing reality that different parents have different values when it comes to making spending decisions. One thing ALL parents have in common is flagged in the article:

(The pooled hiring of teachers) will allow children with affluent parents and connections to get ahead even as the system makes it harder for other children, said L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology of education professor at New York University. He calls it a fresh example of “opportunity hoarding.”

He wishes that parents would also work with their schools to find solutions for all children, by pooling resources, for instance.

“Most parents will act in the interest of their child and you can’t tell them not to,” he said. “I say, ‘Act in the interest of your child, and add some equity to it.’”

But parents will not voluntarily “add some equity to it”. That is the role of government to play, a role that they can only play if enough taxpayers are persuaded that the playing field should be level for everyone.

Unsurprisingly, the private sector, sensing an opportunity for profit, is intervening serving as a broker in creating pandemic pods:

Jennifer Shemtob, owner of Teacher Time to Go, a small company working in the Philadelphia suburbs, said demand is intense. She is offering a package of three hours of tutoring, four days a week. For one family, the cost is $480 per week. If two families join, with up to six children, it’s $720 a week total.

“What I’m seeing is families just wanting that reassurance that their kid is going to get support one way or another,” she said.

Colleen Ganjian, an education consultant, works with high-schoolers in the D.C. area. She said she has received inquiries from more than 20 families asking whether they should participate in arrangements she likened to “nanny share on steroids.” As mother to a third-grader and a preschooler, she is also seeing chatter every day on Facebook groups and in group texts. “It’s all anybody is talking about,” she said.

She said the prices start at $25 or $30 an hour for a college or graduate student. A trained tutor would cost $50 to $100 per hour. The premium option — poaching a teacher from a public school — could cost as much as $100,000 for a year, she said.

“Poaching an experienced teacher” sounds like an extreme notion and $100,000 sounds like a lot of money… but with many talented teachers working in underpaying private schools or low paying public schools it is conceivable that an entrepreneurial minded individual could make a substantial profit renting, say, a vacant store in a shopping mall and offering a pandemic podclass to 15 socially distanced students for $10,000 per year using school issued computers and school designed software programs as a framework. The teacher would make more money than they currently earn and by opening a chain of these “schools” the entrepreneur could make enough to enroll their child in such a program.

Of course not all parents would be able to afford the Pandemic Podclass… but then not all parents can afford to reside in the communities where schools are highly regarded and not all parents can afford to offer their children the same level of learning opportunities.

Which leads to a fundamental equity question: how much opportunity is required for establishing an even playing field? And the corollary political question that accompanies it: how much are taxpayers willing to pay to ensure that every child has the same opportunity?

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