Are Microschools a Macro Trend?

by Andy Rotherham

Around the country a string of public schools with test-based admissions have been under pressure to go to 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 it’s 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 that is 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.

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 that leads to the outcomes we seek. Politically, the schools’ admission methods are obviously the weaker link. And while there is a temptation to frame this all in purely racial terms, the debates don’t break down cleanly. Nor do possible outcomes. In the case of Thomas Jefferson there is a reasonable chance, depending on who uses the lottery, that the school will end up being whiter after these reforms while also having fewer Asian students but more Black and Hispanic students than today.

Perhaps this is going to 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 that every critic of these schools is caught up in a 2020 Marxist fervor of wokeness misreads the landscape. The debates about them are long running, as 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 by definition highly coveted. Where might they go? Obviously, private is one place but it’s 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.

But another option I’d keep an eye on is low-cost privates and micro schools. Pods seem to be more of a phenomena on social media than in communities, but it’s not hard to envision micro schools and low-cost privates as 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 that 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 that can operate 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 1,234 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, too. 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.

Andrew Rotherham is co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a national non-profit educational consulting organization. He writes the blog where this post first appeared. 

*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.

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21 responses to “Are Microschools a Macro Trend?

  1. Wow. A REASONABLE discussion exploring both sides of the issue!

    It’s really not about race, much less culture. It’s more about parents who are well-educated and NOT economically disadvantaged outcompeting parents who are less well educated and economically disadvantaged.

    And there is really no easy way to fix the problem of “improving” the public schools if the way that the winners win is buy buying private tutors and the like.

    If the public schools provided for free any/all of the tutors and prep classes that some parents are buying then the economically disadvantaged would have a more equal chance to compete but even then the other parents would just go buy even more/better prep classes to try to beat out the kids who were using public-school-only classes.

    The question is – is it the public schools responsibility to intervene in education issues that are affected by some parents better wealth and education? And the answer is – if it is public education that is offering the higher level schools – at taxpayer dollars – yes.

    If there were no TJ – the same parents spending money would still do so but in private schools.

    What is the mission of public schools? Is it to offer MORE than conventional K-12 to kids? And if they are going to offer more – should the path to “more” be courses and tutoring than the public schools must provide if they are to ensure truly equal access?

    One potential way to help – would be to have a hybrid lottery, where some small number, like 10% would continue to be best-competitors no matter how they got prepped and the 90% being pure lottery.

  2. “And there is really no easy way to fix the problem of “improving” the public schools if the way that the winners win is buy buying private tutors and the like.”

    You have no evidence of that. I suspect that the wealthy winners win by not sending their kids to public school. Certainly neither Obama nor Trump had any intention of sending their kids to DC public school.

    By my count there are 53 public high schools in Northern Virginia. As far as I know, there is one purely merit based high school. Yet even that is too many for liberals. The first argument is, as always, “white privilege”. That rings hollow when Asian-Americans make up 70% of the merit based high school. So, liberals move to their next argument – it’s a wealth thing. While Asian Americans are slightly more wealthy than white Americans the difference is small and cannot possibly explain 70% of TJ students being Asian-American.

    Liberals have no problem claiming that things like punctuality are white values that are not shared by other ethnic groups. However, they reject the idea that valuing education may be an Asian-American focus that is less entrenched in other racial groups.

    • “However, they reject the idea that valuing education may be an Asian-American focus that is less entrenched in other racial groups.”

      Not sure I agree with that completely. While there’s some truth to the above, it’s a bit too simplistic for me to endorse.

      I prefer to see people as individuals rather than racial and ethnic groups. That’s what the left does. But given that, I guess we have no choice but to address every issue as it pertains to race to some degree.

      Additionally, it ignores the past struggles of various groups throughout our history to rise above the circumstances of their birth. Things have not always been as we see them today.

      I think this is particularly true of African Americans. Their struggle to be educated during and after slavery is testament to how much they valued it.

      Why did that change? More important, how can we encourage ALL our parents and youth to value education? (I personally think vouchers can help.)

      I’ve not yet read it but this might be something to potentially inspire an article about the value of education for Black History Month.

      African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

        • Given that this is a discussion of the value placed on education by Asian-American families I fail to see the relevance of your graphic. Beyond that, “valuing a college degree” and pushing your children to excel are two different things.

          • indeed… and your point about that and African Americans and Hispanics is……….. ?

        • Larry

          You have posted numerous opinion polls of late. Survey results are not always the best measure of reality, even with regard to how much someone values education. The best measure of what someone values is what they do, not what they say.

          Since you like Pew so much.


          • It’s not one site or one poll Nathan. It’s the larger body of information that shows the reality of the facts and how people think.

            I’m glad you too like PEW, they are reliable and objective -unlike some others.

            In this particular case – what I posted related to the supposition by DJ and others here that Black folks and Hispanics are not as committed to education and supporting their kids in school as other races/ethinicities and that’s simply not true – and your links add to the realities – the larger truth if you will.

        • Also from Pew:


  3. Pretty sure the last thing this country needs is more segregation and fracturing.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Micro schools might be a great thing for right now and tomorrow. I like it. Competition would be good for all Virginia schools.

    • I agree with that. However, Virginia is one of the few states with virtually no charter schools. My guess is that BigEd in Virginia and the lawmakers financed through unlimited campaign contributions by BigEd would like to keep it that way.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I am kicking off my own micro school this weekend. Wish me luck. I have been investigating the homeschool laws in Virginia. They are pretty much wide open. Parents have a great deal of latitude in selecting what will work best for their families. The blue team left the back of the barn door wide open. From the VDOE website:

        Option I: The parent holds a high school diploma or a higher credential.
        Option II: The parent meets the qualifications of a teacher as prescribed by the Virginia Board of Education.
        Option III: The parent provides the child with a program of study or curriculum which may be delivered through a correspondence course or distance learning program or in any other manner.
        Option IV: The parent provides evidence that the parent is able to provide an adequate education for the child.

        • What more should the state require? When people homeschool – prior to the pandemic – how do those rules compare?

          I suspect in VDOE’s case – the attitude is that something/anything is better than nothing and eventually the kids will get back to regular instruction and testing.

  5. Nathan and Rippert –

    Thank you for power-washing the consultant’s mud off the wall.

  6. Private schools are experiencing the same WOKE attitudes as TJ and public schools. My old private high school in Northern Virginia is self-flagellating over its lack of social justice over the years and proposing dumbing-down its admissions procedures and grading policies. Also, a fixed 25% minority student body has been proposed by the administration and board, with full scholarships; to be paid from increased non-minority student tuition. ( Its now $43,000 per year.)
    Not sitting well with the PTA. We will see what happens.

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