July 22, 2024

Home-schooling’s growth fueled by money from investors, nonprofits, vouchers

Home-schooling’s growth fueled by money from investors, nonprofits, vouchers

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Parents pull around the circular driveway to drop their children off in the morning. Students climb the steps and hang their backpacks on hooks. Katy Rose greets her charges and sends them into a classroom festooned with artwork, where they open their laptops and begin working through math problems.

But Rose is not a teacher, and this is not a school. Every child here is a home-schooler.

Rose, a registered nurse, had never studied or worked in education before starting her own “microschool,” where her title is “guide” for students who study math and reading online and depend on her for many other subjects.

Her program is part of a company called Prenda, which last year served about 2,000 students across several states. It connects home-school families with microschool leaders who host students, often in their homes. It’s like Airbnb for education, says Prenda’s CEO, because its website allows customers — in this case, parents — to enter their criteria, search and make a match.

An explosion of new options, including Prenda, has transformed home schooling in America. Demand is surging: Hundreds of thousands of children have begun home schooling in the last three years, an unprecedented spike that generated a huge new market. In New Hampshire, for instance, the number of home-schoolers doubled during the pandemic, and even today it remains 40 percent above pre-covid totals.

For many years, home schooling has conjured images of parents and children working together at the kitchen table. The new world of home schooling often looks very different: pods, co-ops, microschools and hybrid schools, often outside the home, as well as real-time and recorded virtual instruction. For a growing number of students, education now exists somewhere on a continuum between school and home, in person and online, professional and amateur.

Students climb a tree during outdoor time at Rose’s microschool. From left: Quinn Zorawowicz, Gwendolyn Humboldt and Calla Zorawowicz. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)
Rose prepares food while students Calla, on left, Gwendolyn, middle, and Quinn play in the kitchen. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)
Students Quinn, on left, Gwendolyn, middle, and Calla eat homemade muffins brought by a parent. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

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Microschools sometimes provide all-day supervision, allowing parents to work full time while sending their children to “home school.” Hybrid schools let students split their days between school and home. Co-ops, once entirely parent run, might employ a professional educator.

Many parents still take the lead in teaching their children. Many rely on family co-ops, in which a mom in one family might teach science while a dad in another leads a photography class. Families also tap into existing community resources such as YMCAs, art studios and nature centers.

But new financial and ideological forces have revolutionized the broader home-school landscape.

The most powerful may be government. About a dozen states allow families to use taxpayer funds for home-school expenses. Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, direct thousands of dollars to families that opt out of public school, whether the destination is a private school or their own homes.

Support comes, too, from the nonprofit sector. School-choice advocates are directing millions of dollars in charitable giving toward home-school organizations — a convergence of two powerful but traditionally separate movements.

And venture capitalists have invested tens of millions of dollars in new businesses to serve what they see as a potentially huge market.

[Tell us about your home-schooling experiences]

For many, the new landscape is a gift, even a lifesaver.

“We needed to do something radically different,” said Kate Shea, a single mom who sends her 12-year-old twins to Rose’s microschool in New Hampshire.

Three of her four children struggle with various disabilities, and Shea says she was exhausted fighting their public schools for accommodations. She couldn’t teach them herself because she has a full-time job. Then she found a learning pod for one child, a virtual school for a second and the microschool for the other two. “It fell from heaven,” she said.

Shea points to the transformation of her son Logan, who is on the autism spectrum, never had friends in public school and was regularly bullied. At Rose’s microschool, she said, that never happens, even when he shows up wearing his banana costume, which he regularly does. “This meets so many kids on so many levels.”

Kate Shea jokes with her son Logan at Rose’s home-based microschool. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)
Logan is on the autism spectrum and never had friends in public school, where he was regularly bullied. At Rose’s microschool that never happens, even when he shows up wearing his banana costume, which he regularly does, his mother said. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

Despite such success stories, critics have concerns. States exercise little oversight of home schooling. What regulations do exist were mostly adopted beginning in the 1980s, when home schooling was almost exclusively at home. Now, some see danger as the number of home-school students soars and more of the educating falls to third parties, including for-profit companies such as Prenda.

“They have no oversight, no taxpayer accountability, no academic or curriculum standards,” said Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, a public school advocacy group. “We don’t know what kids are learning.”

In some states, these arrangements may not even be legal, because home-school parents are required to deliver all or most of the education themselves, said Darren Jones, senior counsel and director of group services at the Home School Legal Defense Association. Only three states explicitly allow for learning pods in state law. Elsewhere, he said, “it’s a fuzzy area.”

“If groups will be meeting four days a week, I usually tell them you should just call yourself a private school,” he said.

It varies by state, but private schools are subject to a range of safety and academic standards. Even some advocates for home schools worry about the rise of what are, functionally, unaccredited and unregulated private schools — subject to far fewer rules — no matter what they may be called.

“Eventually, something horrific is going to happen in one of these situations,” said Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chair the Washington Homeschool Organization. “A kid’s going to get killed, a kid’s going to get seriously injured or molested, because the safeguards that you have at a private school aren’t happening.”

(Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

A for-profit twist on school

Julie Evenson never thought she would be a home-schooler. She and her husband both work full time — she’s a physical therapist; he’s a master electrician. But they felt like their son, now age 12, didn’t fit into public school, and last fall, he was asked to leave his private Christian school.

Feeling desperate, they began driving their son 45 minutes from their home in Wakefield, N.H., to a center in Dover called KaiPod, where he would have full-time supervision four days a week.

In the mornings, he works on lessons using a virtual program his mom found. In the afternoon, KaiPod offers enrichment activities such as crepe making and volleyball.

“This was definitely not what we thought we would be doing,” Evenson said. “But we’re doing it.”

Founder Amar Kumar compares KaiPods, which now operate in four states, to WeWork offices. Students work independently in a communal environment, each with their own laptop, progressing through online programs chosen by parents. As with Prenda, the adults at KaiPod sites are not teachers; KaiPod calls them “coaches.” The meeting places are not schools; they are “learning centers.”

“A learning coach isn’t saying, ‘This is what you must now do,’” Kumar said. “The coach says, ‘If there are things getting in the way of you learning, let me diagnose and help remove that so you can focus on the thing you are here to do.’”

KaiPod Learning is just one of many companies propelled by an unprecedented influx of dollars into home schooling.

The company has raised about $5 million in venture capital funding since 2021, when it was founded. Prenda has raised about $45 million. Primer, another microschool company originally formed to serve home-schoolers, has raised about $19 million, though its campuses are becoming more like tiny private schools, an example of the fuzzy line between traditional and home schooling.

One of the fastest growing ventures is Outschool, an online marketplace for classes, which has raised $255 million since 2015. Outschool lets almost anyone who wants to teach a class post their offerings online, as long as they are secular. Instructors must pass a background check and a review of their experience, but what they teach is up to them. This year, 500,000 live classes have already been delivered to more than 150,000 students globally, ranging from calculus to chess to life skills to arts and crafts. About half of participants are home-schoolers, the company says.

Interest in education technology had already been climbing before the pandemic, when it spiked. Annual private investment increased from a half-billion dollars in 2010 to $10 billion last year, with investors seeing a historic moment for education, said Michael Moe, founder of GSV, a venture capital firm in the Silicon Valley that has backed companies such as ClassDojo and Coursera.

“The mega trend of [school] choice is wildly important to us,” said Moe. “All these shifts create opportunities for companies providing solutions that allow parents and communities to take more control of the learning.”

Students work on a project at Rose’s home-based microschool. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

Kelly Smith, the founder of Prenda’s microschools, created his company after convening his own children and a few from other family friends at his kitchen table. It grew, he said, as more families looked for alternatives to unsatisfying online public school during the pandemic.

Now, much like Airbnb, parents and others interested in becoming Prenda guides can post profiles, including their location, educational philosophy and grade levels accepted. Some parents want hard-charging academics, Smith said, while others want a focus on social-emotional development. Families pay Prenda $2,199 per year, plus additional fees set by the guides, which can range from $2,800 to $8,000, Smith said.

Asked how parents are supposed to assess the quality of a given microschool, Smith said they should be considered like any other product.

“You see a marketplace full of options, you evaluate it … based on all the market signals,” he said. “If you pick one that is not accomplishing what you want to accomplish, you switch.”

At Prenda, reading and math typically are taught through online programs such as Lexia and Zearn, two of the more than 20 offerings. Guides, parents and students choose how to address other subjects under a philosophy that learning should follow student interests. In New Hampshire, for instance, Rose sometimes asks students to practice writing, but she doesn’t always read or comment on their work. She picks and chooses topics for study based on student interests, not a set of state standards.

She pointed to one of her students who wants to be a judge. “She wants to learn about the Constitution and government. So why should I say, ‘No, you should learn about ancient Egypt.’”

Rose said flatly that she has no interest in formal training. “I could take an exam and say, ‘I’m a teacher.’ I don’t feel there’s any benefit in doing that.” On her website, Rose says the difference between her microschools and traditional schools is that she offers “individualized, mastery based love for learning.” She doesn’t mention that there are no trained teachers.

KaiPod and Prenda are both expanding in part based on another new source of funding: government.

Vouchers that once paid only for tuition at private and parochial school can now, in some places, be used for home-schoolers. Most sweeping are Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, which allow families to claim state tax dollars to use at their own discretion for any education expense. In that way, the money follows the student. Instead of going to the local public school, it flows to whatever a family chooses. That can include Prenda or KaiPod fees, online classes or home-school curriculum, as well as tuition at private schools.

Six states allow all or most families to claim ESAs, or soon will. In another seven, eligibility is restricted to lower-income families or children with disabilities.

Smith, of Prenda, says it makes sense for his company to expand into states where public funding is available. “We felt this should not just be the domain of those who can afford it,” he said.

(Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

‘Not a school per se’

The paint colors are bright and the messages on the walls inspirational at Engaged Detroit, a home-school co-op created during the pandemic that has expanded its reach with the help of charitable giving. It now serves 111 families.

Set in a one-story brick building on Outer Drive East, the center serves as home base for parents and children. A “youth board room” includes a long table and a whiteboard for teenage brainstorming. A quiet testing room offers a row of seats along a wall for students to take academic assessments. A lunch room with round tables, each circled by small plastic chairs, doubles as an art room and science lab.

Engaged Detroit was created during the pandemic to serve home-school families and now serves 111 families. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)
Cassidy Robinson, 5, inspects a toy brain in the main room of Engaged Detroit. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

The space also functions as a community gathering spot, and this summer, a few dozen parents and children celebrated Juneteenth here. Looking around the community room, with its turquoise and purple walls, Bernita Bradley, the leader of Engaged Detroit, explained her philosophy.

“This is not a school per se,” she said. It’s up to parents to come up with ideas, she said. “I refuse to take on the whole responsibility of just literally saying, ‘Here I’ve got this perfectly put-together class. Here, come enjoy it.’ Cause y’all parents might be like, ‘That’s not what I needed.’”

Her message of empowerment was echoed all over the building. “You Were Built for This, Mom,” read one sign in the community room. “Mom, You are Stronger than You Know,” said another.

As the pandemic struck, Bradley, a longtime parent advocate in Michigan, saw frustrated parents who felt abandoned by their schools try home schooling, and she created the co-op.

Children play in a bounce house as adults hang out and cook during a Juneteenth celebration at Engaged Detroit. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)
Lia Reid dances with her son Amais Reid, 9, as Jesse Farria, 4, watches during a Juneteenth celebration at Engaged Detroit. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)
Marla Wellborn, a coach at Engaged Detroit, gives a lesson on the history of Juneteenth. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

Families are assigned coaches who meet one-on-one with parents and help them tailor home-school plans, recommend resources, tackle problems and help navigate academic standards. They are offered supplies such as organizers and electronic tablets. Each child gets $270 per semester for supplies and enrichment classes, and free access to classes on Outschool.

All this takes money. Among Engaged Detroit’s backers is the VELA Education Fund, which has made more than 2,400 grants totaling more than $28 million since 2019. About 4 in 10 recipients had been operating for less than a year when they received their first grants. Many grantees serve low-income communities.

To qualify, applicants must be operating or supporting “unconventional learning environments” outside the traditional schools system.

VELA’s primary funders are longtime powerful advocates for school choice programs: the Walton Family Foundation and conservative billionaire Charles Koch’s foundation, Stand Together.

“There wasn’t access to philanthropy for people innovating outside the traditional system,” said Beth Seling, chief operating officer at VELA. “That’s really where our niche space is.”

Home-schooling parent Shirese Powell and her daughter Victoria Powell, 15, at Engaged Detroit. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

Another initiative, the Yass Prize, awards more than $13 million in prize money annually to nonconventional education initiatives, including home-school programs, that demonstrate “transformational change.” Last year, Engaged Detroit and KaiPod Learning each won $200,000 as semifinalists, which allowed Bradley to open the center.

The competition is run by the Center for Education Reform, a school-choice advocacy group. Jeanne Allen, who directs the center and the Yass program, said the goal is to help meet the rising demand from parents for education alternatives and celebrate successful education options for underserved students.

“There’s a larger recognition that more parents are interested and able to find other ways to educate their kids besides four square walls,” Allen said.

In the past, home-schoolers and school-choice activists didn’t see themselves as kin. The latter group wanted taxpayer money to pay for charter, private and religious schools, whereas home-schoolers looked to limit government involvement of any sort.

Coming out of the pandemic, the movements found themselves in common cause. Historically, home-school advocates have been wary of any government money or involvement, for fear it would lead to rules and regulations. But today, many school-choice advocates incorporate support for home-schoolers into their advocacy work, including for vouchers that give these families tax dollars to pay education costs, said Derrell Bradford, president of 50CAN, a national organization that supports school-choice advocacy groups in 10 states. “They were a defensive constituency,” he said. “Now they’re a partner.”

Another beneficiary of the influx of charitable giving is the Cultural Roots Homeschool Cooperative, serving 125 students of color in Richmond, which won $60,000 through two VELA-funded grants in 2020 and 2022 and is applying for the Yass Prize this year.

It is run by Alycia Wright, a licensed teacher and mom to four home-schooled children. After a bad experience with a conservative Christian parent co-op, she began taking her kids to evening classes at a community center. She noticed that the classes were filled with home-school Black families like her own. She and others persuaded the community center to offer classes during the day, and that evolved into a full-scale program.

“What started as two classes kept expanding,” Wright said. Cooking, chess and yoga eventually grew to include academic subjects. Today, her parent-run group offers lessons two days a week. Parents are required to be on-site, but the co-op hires instructors to lead many of the classes.

It’s a popular model. “We are at capacity,” Wright said.

So popular, in fact, that Wright and her husband have bought eight acres of land outside Richmond where they plan to host a second program for home-schoolers.

(Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

It’s the last day of classes at Katy Rose’s microschool in New Hampshire in June, and no one seems eager to leave. Kids ranging from ages 5 to 14 run around the front yard. A group of girls marches down the driveway, arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders, singing a made-up song. Two others slouch in chairs in a corner of the garage, staring at TikTok videos on their phones.

“Do you think there’s anything else you could do to occupy your time?” Rose asks the girls with the phones.

The makeshift campus is part of Rose’s home, set on five acres of land in a woodsy suburb just outside Manchester. Her sprawling house includes an in-law suite — a large one-bedroom apartment — built over the two-car garage. A tenant was moving out right around the time Rose was creating her microschool. Rose realized that with some cosmetic touches, it could be the perfect place.

Like many parents, Rose found orchestrating school-from-home for her four children during the pandemic maddening. One of her daughters had undergone open-heart surgery, and she wanted to shield the girl from the coronavirus. The public schools were not requiring masks, which scared her. On the other hand, she also opposed mandatory coronavirus testing in school.

On Facebook, Rose learned about Prenda. It sounded great, but the company had no microschools near her. Now a new plan dawned on her: Why not create her own?

Rose benefited from all three emerging sources of home-schooling money: government, nonprofit grants and for-profit investment. She connected with venture capital-backed Prenda. Separately, the state education commissioner had decided to use some of New Hampshire’s covid relief money to fund private microschools and pods. The state paid Rose $340 per month, per student to create her own campus last school year. New Hampshire also provides education savings accounts for low- and middle-income families.

Rose also benefited from VELA’s charitable giving, with a $10,000 grant that helped her expand from one to two microschools, utilizing another building on her property.

At times, Rose resembled a teacher, like when she helped 6-year-old Gwendolyn Humboldt on her math. “Odd numbers are like one, three, five, seven,” Rose told the little girl. Gwendolyn quickly returned to answering the questions posed by her online math program, Beast Academy. Soon after, Gwendolyn stood up and proudly showed Rose her laptop.

“You got to a new level?” she asked.

“Almost!” Gwendolyn gushed.

Katy Rose talks with student Gwendolyn. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

It’s unclear whether these students are making more or less academic progress than they would in traditional school. Rose said that some of her students were advancing through more than one grade in a year. Still, some assignments, especially for middle-schoolers, seemed far simpler than what many of their peers are given. Entries in their writing journals, for instance, were sometimes just a sentence or a paragraph long.

One middle-schooler named Meadow said an advantage of public school was having a teacher to help her. Now she barely has any peers her own age. If she gets stuck, she said, “I try to get help or look it up on Safari,” the internet browser.

But Meadow, who sports a nose ring, false eyelashes and purple tips on her jet black hair, saw something more valuable here. In public school, she said, she felt overwhelming anxiety, and she often would skip school altogether. Meadow said her anxiety levels dropped and her attendance improved since she began school here.

And a sixth-grader named Jessica, Logan’s twin sister, said at this school, “you don’t have to raise your hand and be embarrassed if you get a question wrong.” During fifth grade in public school, she said, a classmate told the class to raise their hands “if you think Jessica’s weird,” and a bunch of them did, including someone she thought of as a friend.

“It’s calmer here,” she said. “No one’s making fun of me.”

In the fall, Rose plans to run four or five microschools, though only two will be with Prenda. The company insisted that it hire the guides running its microschools, whereas Rose insisted on hiring and training them herself.

She envisions someday owning a large house with a bed-and-breakfast vibe — different microschools operating in different rooms, with a large kitchen and community gathering space.

“I want to have autonomy in my own business,” she said. “I want to grow.”

Students enjoy their last day of the school year on the front porch during outdoor time at Rose’s home-based microschool. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)