School vouchers must be an option for parents as schools reopen

If I were a parent these days, I wouldn't be clamoring to send my kids back to school. I'd be trying to persuade the government to give me a voucher.

Karen Selick The Post Millennial
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The day after Ontario announced that the schools would reopen in September, a woman I know tweeted about how relieved she was at the news. Her children were falling behind, she said. She and her husband couldn't keep on educating them at home, even though she works from home.

Her tweet surprised me, because she's ordinarily pretty libertarian, and people of her persuasion aren't normally very fond of the public school system. They consider it an indoctrination centre for transforming children into obedient little statists. Many choose to homeschool their kids, or send them to private schools at considerable financial sacrifice.

I suspect that the public schools will be worse than ever when they reopen in September. Parents can now expect their kids to receive skewed information not only about leftist hobby-horses such as climate change, but also about health practices and vaccines. And complaints are already emerging about complicated schedules that will see kids spending only half the time they used to spend in the classroom.

But while government school personnel have been vacationing through the pandemic, the marketplace has gone gamely to work to provide a fresh crop of alternatives for parents to consider. Here are three interesting offerings I’ve noted recently.

The first is Prodigy. This Ontario-based company describes itself as "The engaging, curriculum-aligned math platform loved by over 50 million students, teachers and admins." Parents and teachers alike give it glowing endorsements, claiming that students get hooked on math through the Prodigy game in a way most have never seen before. Prodigy is online and free to all children. It promises to be free forever. How?

As with many modern apps, Prodigy has both a free version and an upgrade. Parents who want more features can buy the deluxe version via monthly subscription. In so doing, they simultaneously help keep the free version online for students whose parents can't afford the upgrade.

Prodigy also has an arm that matches students up with personal online math tutors—for an appropriate fee, of course. The company employs only teachers who are certified to teach in Ontario's public school system. They've been advertising like crazy for qualified tutors over the past few months, so it's clear that the tutoring they provide is in high demand.

Next there's SuperProf, a community of almost twelve million teachers around the globe, coming together on regional websites that allow students to match their learning needs and their budgets with an available tutor. (Full disclosure: I’m listed on Superprof.ca myself.) Teachers come from 28 different countries and can instruct in 14 different languages. There are thousands of courses ranging from a single session to multiple sessions, in fields such as Arts & Hobbies, Professional Development, Computer Sciences, Languages, Music, Health, and academic subjects required for government-run schools or universities. Tutors set their own prices and schedules, advertise their courses, and frequently offer a free introductory lesson as a sample.

Like other e-commerce sites, SuperProf encourages feedback from customers, allowing potential students to read what others have said about the tutor they're considering.

Last but not least is OutSchool, a California company that offers online classes for school-aged kids (kindergarten to grade 12), often in subjects that the school system might consider extracurricular. Kids can get personal online instruction in baking, playing the stock market, meteorology, singing or thousands of other topics that creative teachers devise. Most classes are for small groups of 3 to 6 kids and cost $10 to $15 per hour for each child in the class.

An interesting twist offered by OutSchool is that parents can request that a class be given in something their child wants to learn, aimed at their child's precise age. If your 7-year-old needs to brush up on phonics, just ask. Request lists are circulated to teachers periodically, and teachers can then post an offering to fulfill the request.

This is about as close as you can get to the "deschooling" model advocated by Ivan Illich and John Holt in the 1970s. Every child can set up their own curriculum—with parental guidance, since somebody has to pay the bill—based on their own interests. And if a tutor proves unsatisfactory, your child isn't stuck with that dud for an entire school year. Classes are recorded so kids can refresh their memories of a lesson. Parents can also review them later for quality and safety purposes.

If I were a parent these days, I wouldn't be clamoring to send my kids back to school. I'd be trying to persuade the government to give me a voucher for the amount it would otherwise spend on schooling my kids, and let me spend it on some of these innovative marketplace educational offerings.

According to the latest available figures, Ontario spent an average of $13,894 per child on public education in the year 2016/17. Ontario kids spend only 187 days in school each year, after deducting all vacation time and "PD" days. Therefore, Ontario spends about $74 per day schooling each child. With that kind of money, parents could buy 6 or 7 hours of online education per school day, in a much smaller class, with a teacher whose success depends upon actually satisfying the students' needs.

Parents, are you listening?

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