‘Learning pods’ prove that governments should fund students—not systems

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, December 30, 2020
Learning pods prove that governments should fund students—not systems

As COVID-19 threw education into flux, many families turned to educational alternatives including “learning pods,” a growing mini-schooling trend and another reason why provincial governments should support educational diversity.

Across Canada, the pandemic has heightened interest in homeschooling, independent schools and learning pods. This fall, for example, the Toronto District School Board reported 5,500 fewer students enrolled than anticipated. But even before 2020, a growing share of Canadian families had been seeking educational alternatives.

The majority of students in every province attend government-run public schools. But between 2006-07 and 2018-19, the share of students enrolled in public schools declined in eight of the 10 provinces. During this same time period, the share of children enrolled in independent schools in Canada increased and the share of children homeschooling increased in every province.

Learning pods sprouted during the pandemic while schools were experiencing closures. They’ve garnered particular interest in Ontario. Parents (and sometimes educators) facilitate these mini schools at home or in a rented space, typically consisting of five students or fewer onsite or 10 students or fewer in a distanced (virtual) pod.

Like with independent schools and homeschooling, some level of financial sacrifice is required. In some cases, learning pods are “free” but parents must stay home or work reduced hours. In other cases, pods require curriculum materials, supplies, rented space and tutors.

Notwithstanding the interest in learning pods and the relatively high enrolment in independent schools in Ontario, the province ranks among the lowest in Canada for educational choice. Unlike Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and Saskatchewan (and 31 U.S. states and the 12 European countries with the largest economies), Ontario provides no support to families who choose independent schools. Consequently, it’s more challenging for lower- and middle-income Ontario families to access independent schools.

But it’s a myth that only well-to-do families seek alternative education. In B.C., according to 2017 research, elite schools comprised just 7.7 per cent of independent schools in the province. When families with children attending those elite schools are removed, the average after-tax income for families with kids in independent schools was only 1.9 per cent above the average income for families with children in public schools.

This trend holds true in Alberta where non-elite independent school families have an average after-tax income of only 1.8 per cent lower than the average public school family.

Similarly, a variety of families in Canada may turn to learning pods for alternative schooling for a variety of reasons including concerns about COVID and mental health during the pandemic. Some parents my simply seek normalcy and uninterrupted learning for their kids.

The organic emergence of learning pods shows that families already want educational alternatives for their kids. And it’s another reason why provincial governments should make this choice more affordable for more families.

Of course, opponents of educational diversity often claim that allowing the tax dollars of some parents to follow their kids to other educational options will somehow defund government-run public schools. This is like suggesting that shopping at your local bookstore will somehow defund Indigo.

On the contrary; supporting educational diversity will reduce strain on the public school system and could reduce class sizes overall—a major concern during the pandemic.

As interest in educational alternatives blossoms across Canada, it’s time governments matched that interest with greater access to schooling options that allow children to thrive.

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