Harvard 2023 Education Summit: The Rise of Alternative Education

By Patricia Hutchins


Trish Hutchins recently attended a conference titled Emerging School Models: Moving From Alternative Education to Mainstream. Held at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge Massachusetts, the purpose was to discuss alternative education models and who they are serving, their potential  to transform education and the latest research on these alternative programs.


The theme of Harvard University's 2023 education conference was the rise of alternative education models (homeschooling), microschools, hybrid schools, and classical schools/programs.  There were big name educators there from our elite colleges and universities, as well as state governors, education commissioners, think tank administrators, data analysis researchers, and even some AI developers.  There were also educators from many states presenting on their classical schools/programs, their homeschool support structures, and their microschools that have now grown into gigantic private or hybrid schools.  It was fascinating to hear about what is going on in other states, and to hear the wide range of opinions that are held on classical schooling, school choice, public schooling, etc.  There are too many details to be included in an email, but the one-sentence summary is that everyone is turning their attention to alternative schooling due to its meteoric rise and success.  This is good, and also pretty bad :)  They are thinking of all kinds of ways to "help" us educate our kids.


The groups represented at the conference were all very large (thousands of students, multiple campuses), all very successful (some with waiting lists in the thousands), and all made the case for low or no regulation (thankfully).  Bernita Bradley from the Detroit Homeschool Coop has over 2000 students enrolled in homeschool coop classes, but also offers education classes to parents.  She said it's been very popular and very positive to offer "how to homeschool" and "know your rights" classes to parents who are interested in homeschooling.  It equips families to truly break out of the "school" mentality, rather than removing their children from public school only to look for a full-time private or hybrid school that won't truly address the needs of the children.  She also said that she views homeschooling and school choice as an equity issue as public schools disproportionately fail minority and low-income students.  She was blunt in saying that "traditional education will never work" and that the public school system has made it clear that students aren't thriving.  Bernita was largely in the minority as far as encouraging parents to homeschool their own children.  The other presenters (Emily Hill, Haven School, Colorado; Erik Wearne, Kennesaw State University; Maegan Satcher, Hillsdale; Matthew Kramer, Wildflower Microschools; Shiren Rattigen, West Palm Beach and Miami; Ashley Soifer, National Microschooling Center) all offer alternatives to public education, and they all serve "homeschoolers," but they operate large classroom-model private or charter schools.  These schools are growing exponentially in popularity and some have waitlists in the thousands.  They seem to be serving the segment of "homeschoolers" that are disenchanted with the public school, but are not committed philosophically to homeschooling.  They are seeking a different classroom environment with daily social opportunities and no teaching responsibilities for the parent.  I know we've seen a rise in this kind of homeschooler in Maine since the pandemic in 2020 and the immunization law in 2021.  These families are almost forced into homeschooling, but they really prefer a school environment.  I personally feel it's a misnomer to label these families "homeschoolers," but there aren't other categories for these families as of now.


There were a great many statistics shared that show the positive results of alternative schooling, not just in testing but also in student mental health and happiness.  This is good, but the rise in popularity of alternative schooling also comes with increased regulation.  Homeschool coops, especially small ones, may not be aware of zoning regulations, insurance requirements, financial transparency and record-keeping, licensing, or other applicable statutes.  An example was given of a small homeschool coop that was forced to close because they only had 2 bathrooms and the state required three, even for a group of only 12 students.  Some states require there to be a commercial kitchen, and someone with a food safety license, in order to serve snack, including cutting apples or carrots or spooning yogurt into bowls.  Code enforcement, occupancy limits, noise regulations - all of those can apply to homeschool groups.  The National Microschooling Center provides free support to groups who need help managing all of these regulations.


Almost all of the groups in attendance at the conference are based in states with ESAs (Educational Savings Accounts) or take public educational funding of some sort.  Florida currently has the most robust and least regulated ESA program in the country.  The Florida Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz, presented on the success of ESAs in Florida; he equates ESAs with parental rights.  There are little to no regulations in Florida, largely due to its current political constituency.  They do require yearly testing, and they accumulate student data in a large database that may then be subjected to AI procedures in order to match students with the appropriate curricular materials or scholarships.  It seems like many states already have ESAs and many others are moving forward trying to implement them.  Of course, public schools express opposition. It's being framed as a parental rights issue, putting educational rights back into the hands of parents and equipping families to leave failing public schools.  But it often shunts these families directly into another school situation (private, charter) rather than into homeschooling.  There is a lot of fuzziness around terms like "parental rights," "homeschooling," "school choice," and it's evident not everyone means the same thing. These large hybrid schools market to homeschoolers and consider themselves homeschool support groups.  Some of them take public funds and use them to teach certain subjects in the morning, and then "rent space" to a private group in the afternoon where they teach religious subjects or creation-based science that are funded privately to avoid being subject to ESA regulations for those subjects that are more controversial. 


There are a lot of details but the bottom line is that classical education and alternative education models are growing by leaps and bounds.  This is causing everyone to take note and pay attention.  There is also a rapidly growing movement toward school choice, with funding coming from some form of ESAs.  Some institutions/politicians/communities are hostile to the idea, and others want to "help" us by offering us services.  There is a booming big business cropping up around alternative and classical education.  All of this attention invites scrutiny.  


Trish is a veteran homeschooling mom from the Belfast area. She is a Homeschoolers of Maine Regional Representative for Waldo, Knox, and Lincoln counties. Trish has homeschooled her sons from kindergarten through high school, and both boys are currently in college.