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 [email protected]. This column was disseminated originally as a TJIPP newsletter, and is republished here with permission.

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25 responses to “Don’t Mess with Mama Bears

  1. Yeah, what was NOT said here in the narrative was that:

    Only 51% of Republicans supported with 31% opposed and 18% “unsure”.

    AND , as far as I can tell, nothing in the legislation actually mentions low income parents.

    ” Localities may establish programs to provide funds to parents meeting compulsory attendance requirements in § 22.1-254.A of the Code during the Coronavirus public health emergency by having their children taught by a tutor or teacher of qualifications prescribed by the Board of Education and approved by the division superintendent in lieu of enrollment in the public school system.”

    Half of the Republicans do not support it?

    You’d think that Conservatives would be all of this.

    I call “foul” on the part of TJ… the poll says low income, the legislation does not…

    • An amendment to the legislation I would support. The poll was done a couple of weeks ago, and was not based on anything concrete from Cox. It was an independent idea. I do think Chris (and I) sincerely want the help focused on those without the personal resources to do this on their own. With that change, you’d be on board, Larry?

    • Larry – 31% is not “half”. 31% is not even one-third.

      For some reason when I reply to Larry’s comment it’s showing up under Steve’s comment. This is my third try so I guess I ‘ll have to live with it.

      • Wayne – I said half do not SUPPORT it. Got it?

        something is not right with that poll… This is an issue that most Republicans support… and they got 31% opposed and another 18% “unsure”.

        ” Results for this poll are based on automated telephone interviews conducted among a statewide sample of 1,051 likely voters. Data for this survey research was collected by Cor Services Inc.Interviews were conducted via a computer-assisted telephone interviewing system”

        and then they “oversampled” blacks when as far as I know, this is not typically done in other polls so I’m not sure why this poll.

        • okay – almost half 48.7% do not support the premise of the poll ” Would you support or oppose Virginia providing low-income parents with direct financial assistance so they can afford these services for their children?”

          Wayne, I thought you did not want responses from me? no?

    • I don’t support this. The state is required to provide free public education to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay. Let me repeat – regardless of ability ti pay. The state has allowed the teachers (in many counties) to dramatically reduce the effectiveness of an already failing education system. Every public school student learning 100% online is being shortchanged by our gutless government. Every one of those students is entitled to the same level of support from that gutless government – not just the poor students.

      Where is Northam on these reopening issues? Libtwits blast Trump for the lack of a coordinated Coronavirus response at the federal level but then turn around and say nothing when dipstick Northam, perched atop a Dillon’s Rule state, has nothing to say.

      Even in states with a history of allowing local decision making the governor has an opinion on school reopening which he expresses. To wit:

      Richmond isn’t a swamp, it’s an open sewer.

      • Excellent point. In practical affect, the state government of Virginia has abandoned the state’s children, and the state’s obligation to educate its citizen’s children with the money provided the state out of state taxpayers pockets.


      • Virginia is not that different than other states including Maryland on the public school situation. Both states appear to be letting the school districts decide as are other states.

        I just don’t see the condemnation of Virginia and Northam on this as if he is way out from what other states are doing.

        Learning Pods are not that much different in terms of their existence than private schools or tutoring which has always been an option for wealthier folks – despite the fact that the state provides a basic education – they want more and are willing to pay to get more just like anything else in society.

        Learning pods are not just a Virginia thing either. They are spreading across the country in places where schools have gone largely virtual.

        The big problem, as DJ points out is that lower income don’t have the same resources even if they pool their resources. On the other hand, many are active in churches and churches are a reasonable venue for both child care and learning pods – and Churches also are natural places for retired teachers to be.

        It’s ironic that we condemn public schools across the board, call them “failing” prior to the pandemic but then we condemn them again for not delivering the same schooling we have condemned them on – before the pandemic.

        It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. They’ve just become the proverbial whipping boy for any/all who whine and complain.

        What public schools need is competition.

        Most Conservatives ought to support that.

        And most Conservatives ought to support transparency and accountability for ANY kind of alternative schooling especially if it will have access t taxpayer monies.

        In the current environment the screaming meemies are ought in force no matter what the schools do… It’s like a gauntlet of naysayers.

        • All of which proves my point. Vouchers for Pods are demanded of the State by obligation. It’s the taxpayer money. The taxpayer’s earned that money. The state should no squander the taxpayers money as it does now, but instead return it to effective education, including an array of choice and options, including Pods. This will have cumulative affect, building completion into a failing and grossly dysfunctional monopoly.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Correction to above comment:

            All of which proves my point. Vouchers for Pods are demanded of the State by obligation. It is the taxpayers’ money after all. The taxpayers earned that money. The state should not waste and squander the taxpayers’ money as it does now. Instead, it should return those monies to rebuild and fund new structures and options of public education that work to educate all our children. This should including an array of new choices and options, including those revealed by the current crisis. This includes Pods. This funding and rebuilding effort will have a enormous cumulative beneficial impact. It will build new and revised systems that compete with today’s dysfunctional monopoly of public schools, and so return the latter into a system of education that effectively educates all our kids under a system that includes an array of state funded choices and options, including the Pod system under discussion. This will have a powerful cumulative affect, building competition that into a failing, dysfunctional monopoly that critically needs competition to raise it into its former competence.

  2. I like the concept, especially for parents who could not afford private schools (that include low and middle income parents). The implementation will be a real headache, however.

  3. Since when were schools about the kids? Fairfax County Public Schools are all about the staff and keeping their little-work for relatively good pay jobs secure. I suspect it’s not alone.

    And if it weren’t for 150 years of anti-Irish and anti-Italian bigotry (the Blaine amendments), we’d have a national voucher system in the United States. And lower-income parents would have de facto purchasing power.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      From the 1884 Presidential Campaign Slogan Hall of Fame:

      Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine – Grover Cleveland
      Refers to Blaine’s involvement in unethical business deals with the railroad industry and his behavior after they were exposed.

      Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha – James Blaine
      Refers to the out of wedlock child Cleveland allegedly had fathered.

  4. Larry,
    Sorry for coming late to the party but its probably illegal to post something while traveling I-95 at 65mph. The question (largely thrown in at the last minute) was part of a larger poll on police contract reform that Steve has since posted. The oversampling of Virginia’s Black population was done at my behest because I think if we’re going to talk about issues that especially affect a discrete population (education and policing reform) there’s an obligation to ensure that the data points are sufficient to reflect their views.

    In this case, though, the phrasing was a little confusing for which I apologize — the oversampling was not part of the responses for the R-D-I breakouts but only to ensure that the cross-tab for the Black Virginians represented a reliable sampling.

    Steve is correct that my own preference would be to design the program for low and lower-middle income parents as well as those whose children with disabilities hold an IEP (and for whom expenses are already much higher) — which is why the question is written that way.

    But, for the record, I doubt it would affect the views of those who frankly lie awake at night at even the hint of educational choice — not even in a pandemic.

    I hope I’m wrong. I fear I’m not.

    • Thanks for the response. I still think the poll is odd… with almost half the Republicans not supporting. Normally, this kind of question scores high for Republicans/Conservatives.

      And still do not quite understand the oversampling – most polls don’t do that – and they still get statistically valid numbers for African Americans.

      but having the poll ask for low income and then referencing the legislation without disclosing it was not for low-income is not good IMHO.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I am currently exploring the learning pods option. It could end being a big pay day for the right teachers.

    • James, keep sharing your experiences here! Like homeschooling, learning pods might be here to stay and staffed by retired teachers and para educators who may find it more personally and financially rewarding and if we find a way to serve the economically disadvantaged, we may be on to big changes in public education.

  6. “I am currently exploring the learning pods option. It could end being a big pay day for the right teachers.”

    “for the right teachers:” an important qualifier, obviously, as a significant number of these public school teachers would prefer not to teach at all. Nor would conscientious parents want them teaching their children. Hence the idea is win win for students, good teachers and conscientious parents. And, it will be good for public education that today in America needs a drastic overall.

  7. I’m late to this post — but it’s striking to me that Del Cox’s proposed READ fund does not address broadband access. We can fund all the fancy computer equipment required for remote classes, but it’s to no avail if the kids can’t get (or their parents pay for) an internet connection capable of handling a video call from home for several hours a day.

  8. I think there are some misconceptions about the “absolute need” for internet for learning.

    A lot of learning can be accomplished just with a computer:

    5 Tools For Educators For When There’s No Access To Internet

    We keep making this an all or nothing premise when the reality is – to get as much as you can even if you can’t get all of what you’d like.

    so we’d like “in-person” and then after that “online” but there is also the offline content option that can be quite good and more of it is being developed – for all the places in the world that don’t have internet and won’t have for a while.

    A well-written software program can function much like a personal tutor… it can be interactive. It can see that a question was answered wrong and circle back with another lesson – keyed to the problem the kid have.

    I will admit – we cannot write this kind of software right now -on the fly but a fair amount of it already exists and actually has been in use for those who don’t go to public school and learn “offline”.

    here’s another:


    Kolibri makes high quality education technology available in low-resource communities such as rural schools, refugee camps, orphanages, non-formal school systems, and prison systems.


    1. “Seeding” a Device
    Kolibri installers, updates, and content can be downloaded once to a device in an area that has an Internet connection

    2. Peer-to-Peer Distribution
    That “seeded” device can then share new content and updates with other devices over an offline local network.

    3. Last Mile via “Sneakernet”
    To reach the most remote communities, a device can be carried by foot to share installers, updates, and content with other devices over local networks.

    learningequality dot org/kolibri/

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