ESA expansion sparks wave of microschools

microschools, homeschooling, online learning, ESAs

The universal expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, and the public policy push toward school choice in Arizona have prompted a wave of microschools, an educational concept situated somewhere between homeschooling and online learning. One of the largest microschool chains in Arizona is Prenda, which boasts about 150 schools, though it says enrollment is fluid. (Photo courtesy of Prenda)

ESA expansion sparks wave of microschools

The universal expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, and the public policy push toward school choice in Arizona have ushered in a wave of microschools, an education approach situated somewhere between homeschooling and online learning.

Microschools have garnered praise from families and school choice advocates for the flexibility in curriculum, form and schedule, as well as for the lack of bureaucratic hoops and oversight.

But those wearier of the surge in school choice cite the same points of praise as potential pitfalls for fraud and abuse as no state entity oversees the administration of microschools, despite ties to public dollars.

Those working within the microschool space could not definitively pin down the current number of schools currently operating in the state.

One of the largest microschool chains in the state, Prenda, boasts about 150 schools, but it notes enrollment is fluid ahead of the upcoming school year. And dozens of other independent “mom-and-pop” operations continue to spring up around the state.

Microschools take on myriad shapes depending on the desired curriculum, instruction hours and education approach sought for a particular student.

Some microschools run through large-scale centers with in-house curriculum, while others may be one-off pods of students in a homeschool-esque setting.

The throughlines, though, include class sizes hovering under 15 students and facilitation by teacher or tutor figures.

microschools, ESA, Prenda,
Amar Kumar

Amar Kumar is founder and CEO of KaiPod Learning, a microschool network that allows families to choose either a charter or private online curriculum and the number of days they attend KaiPod for additional tutoring and instruction.

KaiPod employs “guides,” though Kumar notes they only look for people with classroom teaching experience in the hiring process.

Kumar, having taught math in public school before diving into online learning and microschools, said the personalized approach of the program proves to sew success, especially in challenging high-achieving students and bringing students falling behind up to speed.

“If the kid was right at the median, exactly at the middle class, when the teacher stands up and starts writing on the whiteboard, that teacher’s teaching to that kid, that kid doesn’t need extra help,” Kumar said.

“But the kids who are on the other ends of the extreme, they are being failed every single day in class. And so, we think that it’s (a) more adaptive and personalized approach to be way more effective.”

KaiPod’s funding model varies depending on the student, much like other widescale microschools in the state.

Some microschools operate as subcontractors of charter schools. In these settings, students work off charter curriculum and are typically held to the attendance and statewide testing requirements.

Others use ESAs, which either allow parents to buy into microschool programs offering their own curriculum and guided learning settings or to pay for private online school, while also funding an in-person microschool element. Some funded with ESAs are more informal, with one-off pods of students mirroring more of a homeschool model.

Despite receiving funds either through a charter or through ESA funding, neither the Arizona Department of Education nor the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools have any direct oversight of microschools.

A spokesperson for the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools said, “The Board’s oversight extends to holding the charter holder accountable for ensuring compliance with the legal requirements of providing services as a charter school and to the students it serves.”

And Rick Medina, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education, said they do not regulate any private schools, including microschools, and do not track where ESA students enroll. They do however run a daily report to ensure students enrolled in ESA are not actively enrolled in any Arizona public school.

One microschool network, Black Mothers Forum, raised questions over the relationship between charters and microschools in a court dispute with former employees tasked with running one of their sites.

Black Mothers Forum initially brought a suit against three former employees for breach of contract after instructors were found to be clocked in but absent from work. Three random people unknown to Black Mothers Forum leadership were working in their place.

But the case goes beyond the immediate claims in the suit and dives into Arizona’s murky education funding landscape and general oversight of microschools. Black Mothers Forum operates across three models, utilizing charter subcontracting, ESA dollars and a nonprofit framework to secure private financing.

The employees countersued Black Mothers Forum, but BMF argued the employees’ claim was barred by a notice of claim law, placing a statute of limitations on lawsuits brought against public and charter schools.

BMF argued that because it contracts with Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning, an entity that is registered with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, it, too, qualified as a charter school.

In the filing, BMF also contended that its students were enrolled in Sequoia Choice, not with BMF itself. BMF contracts with EdKey, also known as Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning and uses enda, a subcontractor of EdKey for curriculum and staff training. They backed up their claim with an email confirming SCAZDL has a contract with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

“Although students are enrolled in SCAZDL, they physically go to class at a BMF microschool. That puts the education side of the operation, including learning guides, under the aegis of the state Department of Education and the charter school, SCAZDL,” the filing reads.

The instructors contend BMF is not a charter school, as BMF itself does not hold a charter contract, according to another email from the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

The judge agreed BMF was “not a charter school but rather a service provider and independent contractor.”

Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, fears the blind spots and lack of direct oversight of microschools could lead to fraud or abuse.

Without any formal standardization for hiring practices or controls when misconduct does occur, she notes the onus of ensuring student safety is in the hands of the third parties.

“They’re giving out the money to vendors, whether it’s microschools or whatever the vendor is, but there’s no follow up,” Lewis said. “It’s a lot of trust that we’re putting in whoever’s running that microschool, and I can’t imagine doing that without the layers of control there.”

Some microschools implement their own policies in hiring practices and student safety, like adhering to state childcare center laws.

Kumar said KaiPod runs in-depth training, adheres to mandatory reporting and performs background checks on the teachers it hires.

He acknowledged the lack of standardization does pose challenges as microschools take so many shapes, but it should not undermine their potential to become a strong education alternative.

“A thousand flowers blooming will be good for the sector. We absolutely have to figure out some of the broader issues like oversight, accountability, safety. And we will. And we are,” Kumar said. “But that shouldn’t stop us from experimenting and innovating.”