Decentralize K–12 Education

What the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear in education is that one size cannot fit all, and we must not try to force it.

September 15, 2020 • Pandemics and Policy
Decentralize K-12 Education

Decentralize K–12 Education

What the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear in education is that one size cannot fit all, and we must not try to force it.

September 15, 2020 • Pandemics and Policy

This essay is a part of the Pandemics and Policy series.

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State policymakers should

  • enact universal education savings accounts;
  • allow any students who so desire to enroll in virtual charter schools up to a school’s capacity to serve them, and allow their public education dollars to follow them to such schools; and
  • let schools and districts determine whether students are receiving sufficient education rather than prescribing such measures as “seat time” for all schools.

Congress should

  • end state testing mandates.

As COVID-19 cases—and fears—spread in March 2020, schools across the country increasingly faced a problem: how, if at all, would they deliver education if children could not physically attend? They would have to get education at home. Thankfully, about 1.7 million American kids were already doing that. They were, of course, homeschoolers, and their existence after essentially being outlawed in every state as recently as the 1970s is both proof that children can learn at home and a ready source of advice and support for the more than 50 million American children who were enrolled in brick‐​and‐​mortar schools.

Homeschooling is the most visible sign of how educational decentralization can provide resilience in the face of a national emergency. But it’s not the only one: what the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear in education is that one size cannot fit all, and we must not try to force it.


Homeschooling has had a huge moment with COVID-19, and the country is fortunate to have homeschoolers. Homeschooling families have provided invaluable guidance to parents suddenly faced with children learning at home. Homeschoolers told those parents not to fear—that learning at home is an adjustment and that parents are not failing if their children struggle to complete their work, intersperse fun activities, or even loaf a little between academic efforts. Homeschoolers let them know that children spending only a few hours on schoolwork, where previously they were in school from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., is not a sign that kids are not learning—education can proceed much more quickly when teachers do not have to take roll, hand back papers, stop for misbehaving or struggling classmates, line students up and march from the classroom to the gym, and more time‐​consuming activities.

Thanks in part to the growing presence of homeschoolers, there are also abundant online learning resources parents can draw on to supplement or even replace what instruction their physical schools were providing. Those include Outschool, Duolingo, Khan Academy, and more. And homeschoolers have generously volunteered their experience and advice in online groups such as Learn Everywhere.

Private versus Public Schools

Of course, most children attend schools, and almost all the schools—save some virtual charter schools and online “traditional” public schools—are brick‐​and‐​mortar places where children physically go to receive instruction. Moreover, there is wide variety among these institutions: small public schools in big districts, big public schools in small districts, big private high schools, small private elementary schools, and so on. How did the sectors, broadly, perform in adjusting to the new normal?

Logically, we would expect private schools to have transitioned more quickly and effectively to online education. Private schools tend to be smaller and more independent than public schools—a Catholic diocesan schools office is as close as private schools typically get to a district bureaucracy, and that is not very close—so they can move more nimbly as circumstances change. On the flip side, school districts tend to have full‐​time employees dedicated to information technology (IT) that private schools may not have. What we saw was that while the transition was hard for everyone, being nimble typically beat having big IT staffs.

Two surveys of public and private schools conducted at almost the same time—early to mid-April—give a sense of the difference. The American Enterprise Institute surveyed public school districts and found that as of April 14—about a month after the coronavirus really started hitting the United States—almost 20 percent of public school districts still did not offer any remote instruction and that only 54 percent had started remote instruction within two weeks of their buildings closing. In contrast, a survey of private schools conducted by the school‐​choice advocacy group EdChoice between April 1 and April 17 found that almost 88 percent of private schools had “shifted to online learning with formal curricula.” So, it was not just some online provision but regular curricula.

A sign on a closed local school because of the coronavirus. Photo by Breawycker
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COVID-19 Permanent Private School Closures

The COVID-19 crisis is wreaking havoc on all schools, but private schools are in especially grave danger. Many have long been on a precarious financial footing, forced to keep tuition as low as possible to remain viable against “free” public schools. That razor‐​thin financial model is proving very difficult to sustain as the coronavirus has led to school and church shutdowns—and hence big fundraising drops—and as tuition‐​paying families face their own virus‐​related financial problems.

See the stats  

A Common Sense Media national survey of children ages 13 to 17 also found evidence of a private‐​sector advantage adapting to the pandemic. It found that private school students were more than twice as likely as public school students to connect with their teachers each day during the lockdown. It also found that private school students were 1.5 times as likely as public school students to attend online classes during the closures.

Finally, the education policy journal Education Next published a survey in July that found that the schools attended by 88 percent of private school students and 86 percent of public/​private hybrid charter school students had introduced new material during lockdowns versus only 72 percent of public school students. Sixty‐​one percent of charter school parents and 41 percent of private school parents reported that their child had one‐​on‐​one contact with a teacher versus 37 percent of children in district schools.

Of course, private schools and charter schools have something besides their relatively small, agile size spurring them to be more responsive to changing circumstances. They also must satisfy their customers—parents and students—to stay in business, whereas traditional public schools receive funding regardless of parent satisfaction. That means private schools and charter schools have much more at stake if they fail to react promptly and effectively to changing circumstances even as disruptive and unique as COVID-19. It may also explain why Education Next found that the parents of 39 percent of private school students and 46 percent of charter school students were “very satisfied” with what their schools provided during closure versus 26 percent of parents of traditional public school students.

State and Federal Governments

One reason public schools are inflexible and hard to maneuver is their sheer size: they and their districts tend to be much larger than private schools. They are also subject to many more state and federal rules and must get permission to make changes.

The relative inflexibility of public schools resulted in delays for many schools and districts. Michigan’s Department of Education, for instance, at first said that online instruction could not count toward the state’s time‐​being‐​educated requirement. “It’s not fair to allow districts with resources to count days and other districts trying to get resources not qualify to count those days,” said Casandra Ulbrich, state education board president. The School District of Philadelphia initially insisted that its schools could deliver only supplemental instruction and not formal curricular instruction because students with disabilities could not be fully accommodated as required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Officials made similar pronouncements in Chicago and elsewhere.

To discourage any further delay, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education published guidance specifically stating that “ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.” Centralized regulation of public schooling unnecessarily slowed the transition to full instruction for many children.

Response to the pandemic also has revealed how dispensable some mandates are that have been central to education policy. Federal education policy has mandated uniform state testing—with serious consequences for schools—since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 somewhat reduced the emphasis on high‐​stakes testing, but that law retained uniform state standard and testing mandates and had ramifications for the lowest‐​scoring schools. At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, many states and districts feared that they would be held accountable for the “big test,” but Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos offered liberal testing waivers. All states eventually claimed them with nary a peep that “accountability” would suffer.

Going Forward

If what happened during the 2019–20 school year does not sufficiently make the case for decentralization, preparation for the 2020–21 school year absolutely should. At the end of summer 2020, no one was certain what the upcoming year would look like—whether there would be big outbreaks, closures, etc.—but one thing was clear: while many parents wanted their children to return to in‐​person school, many did not, at least not until they felt assured of their children’s safety. One national survey released on June 1, for instance, found that 21 percent of parents whose children had attended brick‐​and‐​mortar schools in March 2020 did not feel comfortable with their children returning to school. A University of Michigan poll of parents in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois in late June found that one‐​third of respondents would likely not send their children back to school in the fall. And a July national survey found that 53 percent of likely voters opposed calls to fully reopen daycares or K–12 schools.

Public school districts have been proposing various ways to deal with the problem of different parents having different valuations of risk, including online/​in‐​person hybrid provisions, but a system grounded in school choice would be more efficient. Rather than a single school or system trying to be all things for all people, different schools could focus on specific delivery mechanisms—all online, all in‐​person, blended—and parents could select the best fit for their children. By July, for instance, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced that it would start with online‐​only schooling while the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles planned in‐​person schooling. Also, options such as virtual charter schools could take more students, but in some states, states capped or stopped the schools’ enrollment.

Several surveys indicated that a substantial portion of families wanted to continue home‐​based education in the fall even if brick‐​and‐​mortar schools reopened. In April, an EdChoice and Morning Consult survey found that 52 percent of American families had a more favorable view of homeschooling as a result of their educational experiences during the lockdown. RealClear Opinion Research found in May that 40.8 percent of families were “more likely” to continue home‐​based education after the lockdown, and a USA Today poll in late May similarly found that 60 percent of parents were “likely” to pursue at‐​home learning options in the coming school year. A July Gallup poll found that 64 percent of American parents wanted full‐ or part‐​time virtual learning for their children in the fall. Also in July, North Carolina’s non‐​public education system website went down as it was overloaded with submissions of notices of intent to homeschool.

Families wish to continue home‐​based education for a variety of reasons, including satisfaction with their educational experience during the lockdown, dissatisfaction with their district‐​run schools, displeasure with disconcerting social distancing reopening plans, and continuing fears about exposing their children to COVID-19.

Policy Implications

What the response of our education system to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is that decentralized decisionmaking is the key to coping with major disruptions. Not only do disruptions hit different places with different levels of severity—New York City was struck much harder than Montana—but smaller, autonomous units can change how they operate faster than big bureaucratic organizations. And it is a simple human reality that different people have widely varying tolerances for risk.

At the federal level, policymakers should consider dropping annual uniform state testing mandates. Standardized testing is a cramped way to assess educational success, and when disruptions occur, it can delay speedy actions. Tests also lose their value as assessments of school effectiveness with learning disruptions. A pandemic is likely to have a far bigger effect on test scores than anything the schools do.

Constitutional authority over education resides at the state level, where the farthest‐​reaching reforms should take place. States should give public school districts far more ability to make decisions for themselves over such things as measuring the right “amount” of education.

Measuring educational effectiveness by the time a student sits in a building makes little sense in normal circumstances and still less sense when all instruction is delivered at home, often through recorded lessons. Districts should also be able to make their own closure decisions; urban and rural parts of a state could see far different COVID-19 threat levels. And while research suggests that students are generally better off in school than out, the science is still unsettled, and degree of risk varies by student age, building conditions, a child’s overall health, and more. We need decentralization to try different arrangements tailored to specific circumstances and to see which work most effectively.

Potentially far more valuable than giving districts autonomy is fundamentally changing the education structure by having the money follow children and giving educators autonomy to run schools and teach as they think best. This would create a system that is more flexible and innovative—with smaller schools able to more quickly respond to threats—and empower educators to try new things. That empowerment is key to getting more of the sorts of platforms, such as Google Classroom and Duolingo, that have enabled online education to become increasingly enriching. It is also crucial to enabling parents to find providers that will efficiently furnish education commensurate with families’ tolerance for risk.

One option is for states to open the doors wide to virtual charter schools. More promising still would be for states to enact or expand vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and especially education savings accounts (ESA). ESAs are basically accounts into which either the state, or groups getting tax‐​favored donations, put money for children and from which parents can use the funds for educational expenses. Expenses could include tuition costs but also tutoring, “pandemic pods” of a few children and a teacher, or many other educational uses. ESAs maximize the ability of parents to create a full suite of educational services tailored to their child’s unique needs and circumstances.


Much of the American education system struggled to respond to COVID-19, faltering for weeks or more. Homeschoolers, in contrast, were ready from the start to both educate their own children and help their fellow parents. Among brick‐​and‐​mortar institutions, private schools adjusted more quickly and effectively than public ones. And citing federal regulations, some school districts delayed launching new online lessons, to which the U.S. Department of Education wisely responded by saying such rules should not stand in the way of delivering new material to millions of students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly demonstrated the need for American education to be much more agile and adaptable to changing and unique circumstances and has shone a light on the way to do that: decentralization, especially by funding students instead of school systems.

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