Don’t Mess with Mama Bears

by Chris Braunlich

As a local School Board member many years ago, I learned the truism, “Never stand between a Mama Bear and her cub.”

Education systems across the country are now learning it in real time.

With most Virginia schools shut down for in-school learning, parents are trying desperately to find resources to supplement less-than-optimal school programming. One of the most frequently used innovations is “learning pods” in which a group of local children learn together. Some parents take turns offering instruction, other pods hire tutors, regular classroom teachers, books and more.

The idea has taken off. Scores of “Pandemic Pods” Facebook groups have formed in a desperate attempt to give their children an education and exchange ideas.

They have no choice. Whether the cause is teachers unions, parents reluctant to put their kids back in a large classroom and crowded hallways, the nature of a pandemic, or administrators recognizing the limitations of physical space, schools are mostly closed to in-classroom instruction.

For their defense of their children, these parents have been called segregationists, racist and worse. Some school systems around the country have tried to ban education pods, or prohibited teachers from working with one. Fairfax County Public Schools noted concern that the pods “may widen the gap in educational access and equity for all students. Many parents cannot afford private instruction. Many working families can’t provide transportation to and from a tutoring pod, even if they could afford to pay for the service.”

The concern about inequity is correct. The loss of in-classroom teaching is especially dire for low-income parents who can’t afford the resources and parents of children with disabilities for whom falling further behind without in-person instruction can have tragic consequences.

The answer, however, is not to call parents segregationists or to try to stop them. The answer is to encourage it and let it flourish. The answer is to help parents, not stand in their schoolhouse door.

Instead of trying to pull parents with resources down, why not lift parents without the resources up, so that a rising tide lifts all boats?

Delegate Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has a proposal to do that, described to General Assembly members by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, in a recent “floor speech.” His proposed budget amendment would use $100 million in unspent federal COVID-19 dollars to create a Reimbursement for Education Access Decisions (READ) Fund, to be administered by and in partnership with local governments across Virginia. These funds could be used for tutoring services, educational therapies, tuition or fees for online education more specific to a student’s needs, national tests, transportation, computer hardware and software and consumable education supplies. The innovation would last for as long as the crisis affected education.

School systems, which always say children are the priority, should not complain.  They are proving unable to provide these things; parents — especially low-income parents — should not have to shoulder the burden themselves.

In short: Cox’s budget amendment is the great equalizer, providing resources to all parents but importantly to those who need them most: low-income, working-class parents and those whose children are receiving special education services.

The amendment should come before the House Appropriations Committee members sometime next week, and those members would benefit by hearing from parents struggling to ensure their children’s education doesn’t fall any further behind than it will. However winning in a General Assembly that has given short shrift to most Republican proposals may be hard, because Democrats typically oppose anything smacking of “school choice.”

But opposition now runs a risk because the issue cuts across party lines. A recent Thomas Jefferson Institute poll shows nearly 60% of Virginians supporting such a measure, with only 24% opposed. Among Democrats the support level rises to more than 71%; among Black Virginians, it is 70%.

Polls regularly show most parents are satisfied with their public schools, but the pandemic has demonstrated for them the limitations of a “one size fits all” education system. Parents who never thought about the need to find alternative educational opportunities are thinking about it hard … and not liking the response they’re getting or the obstacles thrown in front of them.

Those who stand in their way are warned:  Mess with a Mama Bear at your own risk.

Chris Braunlich is president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. He served eight years on the Fairfax County School Board and is a former president of the Virginia State Board of Education. He may be reached at This column was disseminated originally as a TJIPP newsletter, and is republished here with permission.