If someone had told me that 175 people were going to Kennesaw, Georgia to spend an entire spring Saturday getting together and talking about hybrid homeschooling, I would have told them they were crazy. But that’s exactly what happened at the first National Hybrid Schools Project conference at Kennesaw State University.
School administrators, teachers, parents, researchers, funders and other interested parties came together to share experiences, lessons learned and problems they were struggling with. Sessions on topics such as curriculum, accreditation, funding, government policy, academic research, networking, teacher recruitment and training provided productive discussions and hands-on experiences. It was an invigorating and inspiring event.
But what does the future hold for hybrid homeschooling? Will this energy lead to growth and expansion? Will education return to some sort of pre-pandemic ‘normal’ now that case numbers have fallen and faces are increasingly maskless? After listening and speaking to hybrid homeschoolers, I think three tensions will shape the next five to 10 years in the hybrid school sector.
Tension #1: Formalization or Independence
One of the most interesting discussions at the conference took place during a panel on accreditation. After a representative from a network of schools that had done the arduous work of accreditation presented its benefits, some of the more skeptical voices in the audience started back-and-forth about the pros and cons. Accreditation confers legitimacy and an external seal of approval. It also urges schools to think consciously about their work. However, some school leaders are concerned that accreditation will force them to be more like traditional schools, exactly what they are trying to avoid. They don’t think accreditors really understand what they’re trying to do. They also think they’re pretty legitimate without accreditation.
I have no idea whether hybrid homeschools should be accredited or not. There are clearly costs and benefits, and different schools will come to different decisions. But issues surrounding accreditation and certification, and all the external mechanisms that exist to try and formalize what schools offer, will continue to swirl as schools grow, expand and seek legitimacy. How schools answer these questions can affect the experiences their students can have after leaving school (e.g. qualifying for certain scholarships or playing sports). It will also shape the look of schools and the freedom they have to do what they want.
Tension #2: Work inside or outside the system
Another interesting panel featured hybrid homeschoolers from California. All of them operated public hybrid homeschools that were licensed as charter schools. While the minority of participants, the charter hybrid schools represented at the conference educated tens of thousands of students. This raised important questions about the pros and cons of working in the public school system (and/or the increasing number of government programs to support families attending private schools).
Hybrid schools that operate as public schools or participate in publicly funded private school choice programs have the great advantage of being free to students. This opens them up to a wider range of families. Working within the system can also open doors for students to participate in other enrichment programs and extracurricular activities, and provide a sense of legitimacy and credibility that private schools cannot always provide.
At the same time, public schools have much less autonomy and are tied to a system dominated by interests that are often hostile to hybrid schooling. Schools are much more affected by the prevailing political winds, as California charter schools are the first to tell you. Private schools participating in electoral programs have good reason to fear that accepting government funding may lead to more government influence and control.
Again, I have no answers as to how schools should integrate or what programs they should or should not participate in. But as more money is made available to support school choices, more schools will wrestle with these questions.
Tension #3: Working in friendly or hostile countries
When you talk to people starting new and innovative schools, the same places come up. States like Arizona, Florida and New Hampshire have been very hospitable to educational entrepreneurs, both in terms of the funding available for alternative school models and the regulatory environment that creates the space for new and different schools.
But if all educational entrepreneurs go to the same places, there is a risk of a massive mismatch between supply and demand. Large school models can cannibalize each other in artificially constrained markets, while millions of schoolchildren cannot use them at all.
Establishing in more favorable climates makes perfect sense, but it might also be appropriate for the sector to try and find new pastures. It will take work on the policy side and most likely significant investment to try to get a foothold in a state hostile to educational choice, but it may need to build a truly stable sector.
The future of the hybrid school is bright. Every industry has questions that it has to deal with in the early days. Having spent time with those who are currently asking and answering these questions, I have every confidence that they will rise to the challenge. It will be exciting to see how they develop and grow.