'Pandemic pods’ may undermine promises of public education

Signs direct the flow of student traffic at Kensington Community School amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Sept. 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio

With schools reopening after COVID-19 closures, concerns about the safety and certainty of public schooling have driven some parents to consider alternatives to sending kids back to brick-and-mortar classrooms.

One option making headlines is the formation of “learning pods” also known as “pandemic pods.” Pandemic pods are small groups of children from different families who learn together outside of traditional school buildings.

While pandemic pods may seem relatively harmless, they are part of a growing trend towards education privatization that undermines public education and democracy. The advent of pandemic pods has been facilitated by micro-communities of organized parents operating in communities across Canada — where public education has been privatizing for decades.

In fact, the number of families choosing private schools or homeschooling has increased and public schools’ reliance on private funds has become normalized. Among other concerns, these shifts point to some parents’ diminishing confidence in governments.

Private interests first

Some pods involve parents providing instruction to their own and others’ children; this is simply a version of homeschooling. In other models, multiple families hire a teacher to deliver the curriculum, or parents pay a for-profit business to provide instruction and space for learning. These arrangements are akin to private schooling.

Another type of pod is one in which families hire someone to help kids as they complete remote instruction provided by a public school board. This model is similar to traditional tutoring to support in-school instruction.

With all of these approaches, either parents or those they delegate to represent their interests participate in the privatization of education by taking on roles that have traditionally been the responsibility of governments.

Privatization in education

Privatization of public education is multifaceted. Unlike in other sectors where governments have sold public assets to private owners, privatization in publicly funded education can mean adopting practices common in the private sector.

Introducing policies to create markets in education is one example. In this arrangement, schools compete for students as parents, the markets’ consumers, choose between a variety of schooling “options.” Choices may include a highly ranked neighbourhood school, private, alternative or charter schools, and specialized arts, athletic or academic programs like French immersion and the International Baccalaureate.

While market approaches in education have gained traction in western societies over the past few decades, they have failed to deliver on the promise that they would improve educational outcomes for all students, especially the most disadvantaged.

Education privatization can also mean increasing the involvement of the private sector in the delivery, funding or governance of public schooling.

Sometimes privatization in education involves creating opportunities for businesses to profit from public education. The involvement of educational technology companies in delivering e-learning is one such example. But the private sector also includes civil society organizations and private citizens, including parents.

Education policies and practices that enable advantaged parents to secure benefits for their own children include fundraising, school fees, international education, public funding of private schools — and pandemic pods.

Private benefits

Researchers who examine the effects of various education privatization policies typically find that they undermine hallmarks of public education. For example, policies that enable school choice — such as charter schools, public funding of private schools, open enrolment and specialized programs — undermine the promise of equal access to education.

Read more: Charter schools: What you need to know about their anticipated growth in Alberta

Research shows that not all students and families can participate in school choice. A study in Vancouver, for example, shows that parents’ ability to choose schools depends on their income and, relatedly, where they live. A study in Toronto found that white, affluent students are over-represented in specialized arts programs and secondary schools, while researchers found that Vancouver’s Indigenous students are less likely to attend specialized secondary school programs than their non-Indigenous peers.

Public education is supposed to privilege collective benefits of education over private ones. Policies that position families and students as consumers and enable them to select and pay for better resources and opportunities in public schools turn this commitment on its head: public education is constructed primarily as a private — rather than a collective — good.

Crisis and change

While we don’t yet know if the pods will outlast the pandemic, crises are known to facilitate education privatization. Researchers Antoni Verger, Clara Fontdevilla and Adrián Zancajo at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona explain that this happens because crises provide opportunities to test new ideas. Also, they note that the sense of urgency experienced following a catastrophe means that transparent and democratic debates are less likely to happen; consequently, controversial policies are introduced more easily. And changes implemented immediately following crises may endure.

The expansion of charter schools in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina is a case in point. The urgent need to reopen schools meant city residents were willing to accept policies they’d previously resisted. Local school districts invited philanthropists and foundations to rebuild schools in the city and operate them as charter schools. Charter schools are typically governed by a corporate body (a charter board) rather than a democratically elected school board.

Charter school opponents in New Orleans found it hard to organize to contest the reforms since many of them had been displaced by the storm. Today, every publicly funded school in New Orleans is a charter school.

Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney introduced legislation to increase the number of charter schools in the province in May, after schools closed due to the pandemic.

A teacher leads a pre-kindergarten class.
Michelle Garnett teaches a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans in December 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Reproducing social inequalities

School choice and many other education privatization policies call on parents to assume a greater responsibility for their children’s schooling and success. The turn to pandemic pods and fundraising for personal protective equipment and other COVID-related safety items suggest some parents are now accepting responsibility for ensuring their kids’ learning environments are safe.

The shift towards private funding of education reduces the responsibility of governments to adequately fund schools and to ensure all children have access to high-quality education programming.

Education privatization undermines democratic commitments to equity, equality and inclusion by creating and reproducing social inequalities.

Sue Winton receives funding from Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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