Advocates of school choice say that it gives low-income parents access to institutions that can better serve their children. Critics say that it lures highly motivated Black families away from traditional public schools and further hobbles underfunded districts. Presidents Clinton and Obama supported charters, but Democrats have largely cooled on them, and progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed curbing their growth. Michigan’s charters, most of which operate as for-profit companies, have consistently performed worse than the state’s traditional public schools. Yet parents continue to choose charters, which receive a large chunk of the more than eight thousand dollars per student that the state would otherwise send to non-charters, but aren’t subject to the same degree of public oversight. About half of Detroit’s students are now enrolled in charters, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. city.
The Walton foundation set up the National Parents Union in January, 2020, with Rodrigues as the founding president. Rodrigues’s oldest son, who has autism and A.D.H.D., was suspended thirty-six times in kindergarten alone; sometimes he was sent to a sensory-deprivation room that Rodrigues thought resembled a cinder-block cell. Eventually, a school representative suggested a charter school. “I didn’t know what a charter school was,” Rodrigues said. “I didn’t know I had any options. I just thought I had to send him to the closest school. I didn’t know there were fights like this in education. All I knew was ‘Oh, my god, are you kidding me—why are you doing this to my kid?’ ”
The National Parents Union was less than three months old when the pandemic closed schools. As well-off families set up private learning pods, Vela Education Fund gave Rodrigues seven hundred thousand dollars to help people with fewer resources, like Bernita, create their own. “There was an article in the New York Times about fancy white people in upstate New York creating these ‘pandemic pods,’ ” Rodrigues said. “But that’s how poor Black and brown folks survive in America—we resource-share. We don’t call them ‘pandemic pods,’ because that’s a bougie new term. For us, we called it ‘going to Abuelita’s house,’ because she watched all the cousins in the family after school, and that’s where you learned a host of skills outside of the normal school setting.”
Last summer, the nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat, which receives Walton funding, co-sponsored a virtual town hall on reopening Michigan’s public schools. Detroit’s superintendent, Nikolai P. Vitti, said that expanding to “non-traditional” options, such as learning pods, would hurt many of the city’s children. He warned that homeschooling, like charter schools, would undermine public education and cost teachers their jobs. Legislators were already drafting bills, he said, to take money away from schools so that children could continue learning in pods after campuses reopened.
“I don’t judge any parent for using the socioeconomic means that they have to create what they believe is the best educational opportunity for their child,” Vitti said. “We all do that, in our way, as parents. But that is the purpose of traditional public education, to try to be the equalizer, to try to create that equal opportunity.”
Bernita had logged on to the discussion from her kitchen. “Parents are not deciding to take their children out because of COVID,” she told Vitti. “Parents are doing pods because education has failed children in this city forever.”
I asked Kija if it bothered her to accept money from the conservative-libertarian Koch family, who have spent vast sums of their fortune advocating for lower taxes, deep cuts to social services, and looser environmental regulations. “I guess the bigger question is, why don’t we have enough resources so that we don’t have to get money from them? It bothers me, yes—but why do they have so much money that they get to fund all of our shit?” she asked. “I shouldn’t have to get resources from the Kochs.”
Kija and Bernita describe themselves as Democrats. Bernita said that, in another era, she “would be a Black Panther with white friends.” She said that she was “at peace” with her decision to take money from the Koch family, because they fund several of the charter schools that Victoria attended, through their Michigan-based building-supply company Guardian Industries. She is not a “poster child” for her conservative backers, she added—the Koch family has no control over what or how she teaches. In a video about Engaged Detroit produced by Vela Education Fund, Bernita states, “If school won’t reinvent education, we have to reinvent it ourselves, and our goal at Engaged Detroit is to make sure families have the tools so that choice is in their hands.”
Vela Education Fund offered Bernita one year of funding, and in April she accepted another twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant, from Guardian Industries, to sustain her group through the next school year. Rodrigues imagines a scenario in which the per-pupil funding that public-school districts normally receive goes straight to a homeschooling parent. “Instead,” she said, “you have systems that are addicted to that money.”
Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a collective of more than three hundred philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation, says it’s not clear yet whether funders will continue to invest in homeschooling after the pandemic. Most are in “listening mode,” she said. Andre Perry, an education-policy expert at the centrist Brookings Institution, suspects that conservative-libertarian philanthropists will not prop up homeschooling as they have charters and vouchers, “but they will use this wedge issue to hurt public schools,” he said.
Perry was once the C.E.O. of the Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network, which launched in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but he grew skeptical of the school-choice movement. Its funders tend to put their wealth toward alternatives to the public-school system, Perry told me, rather than lobbying state governments to implement more equitable funding models for public schools or to address the over-representation of Black children in special education. “Because of the pandemic, you’ve had organizations saying, Hey, this is an opportunity to again go after public schools,” Perry said. The Vela-funded homeschooling collectives don’t address root causes of educational disparities, he continued: “When people only focus on the escape hatch, it reveals they’re not interested in improving public education.”
Perry went on, “Slapping ‘Parents Union’ on something while you’re constantly trying to underfund public education—that’s not the kind of trade-off that suggests you’re interested in empowering Black people. It’s more of a sign that you’re trying to advance a conservative agenda against public systems.”
Six months into the pandemic, a consensus had emerged that many children, in all kinds of learning environments, were depressed, disengaged, and lonely in the Zoom simulacrum of school. “It’s Time to Admit It: Remote Education Is a Failure,” a headline stated in the Washington Post. “Remote Learning Is a Bad Joke,” The Atlantic declared. For some homeschoolers who rely heavily on online curricula, an all-screens, alone-in-a-room version of school can have a flattening effect even outside of a global health crisis. Kafele Gray, Kija’s son, who is now twenty-one and studying music business at Durham College, in Ontario, liked online homeschooling because it freed him from bullying. After two years, though, he was failing his classes and procrastinating, with assignments piling up. “It got kind of stressful,” he said. “You have to teach yourself and be on yourself.” He especially struggled with math. “When I’m in school, I’m better at math, because I have the teacher there to explain it to me—I’m seeing it broken down. When I was online, I would get it wrong, but I wouldn’t know why.” Still, when Kafele returned to his charter school, in eleventh grade, he’d learned to push himself to figure things out on his own. “School was less challenging” than it had been two years earlier, he told me. “I started getting A’s and B’s again.”
When the fall semester started, Bernita and Victoria tried to replicate the course load Victoria would have undertaken in a normal year. Bernita searched for online chemistry and trigonometry classes, and Victoria decided to take dance at the charter high school she’d attended before the pandemic. Bernita wanted the Engaged Detroit families to learn about Black history, so she signed them up for a six-week virtual course with the Detroit historian Jamal Jordan. Victoria bought pink notebooks and pens and a chalkboard for writing out the weekly schedule, and Bernita set up a desk for her daughter in the den. Though Bernita spent many hours on Zoom for her consulting work, the family ate lunch together most days.
As the semester continued, Victoria faded. She stayed up until seven in the morning and slept until two every afternoon, and she stopped doing chemistry. In October, Bernita told her that she couldn’t go on a planned post-pandemic trip to Los Angeles. Later that week, during her weekly coaching session with Kija, Bernita bragged about disciplining Victoria. Kija asked her to reconsider: teen-agers like sleeping in, and homeschooling allows kids to follow their natural rhythms. Besides, Kija said, Black kids are disciplined more than enough. Rather than punish Victoria, Kija suggested, Bernita should ask her daughter what she wanted to study.
The advice worked: Victoria replaced chemistry with a forensic-science class that met the state science requirements for graduation. She pored over lessons about evidence and crime scenes for hours at a time. By spring, she was waking up early to study for the core classes she needed to pass. One cold, sunny Wednesday, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Look Momma I’m Soaring,” Victoria sat down to puzzle out the trigonometry lessons that had always confused her. She emptied a pail of highlighters onto the table. At her high school, teachers hadn’t let her write in different colors, and she couldn’t make sense of her monochromatic notes. She opened a Khan Academy lesson on side ratios, and as the instructor explained the formulas for finding cosine and tangent Victoria drew triangles, highlighting each side with a different color.
The lesson included a nine-minute video and several practice questions. Every time Victoria attempted to find the cosine of the specified angle, she got the wrong answer. In a regular class, she would have pretended to understand. At home, she paused the video, rewound it, and flipped back through her notes. Eventually, she realized that she didn’t know which side was the hypotenuse. She Googled the word.
“The longest side of a right triangle,” she read. “Oh.”
She tried the formula for sine—opposite over hypotenuse—and this time a green check mark of victory flashed on her screen. Victoria solved for the angle’s tangent, and when she got it right she smiled. “O.K., I’m smart,” she said.
The parents of Engaged Detroit meet on Zoom every other Monday night. One evening in mid-March, Bernita set her laptop on the kitchen table next to a plate of broccoli and mashed potatoes. A dozen squares popped up on her screen, showing kitchens and living rooms from across the city. The parents updated one another on their children’s progress. Two preteens had started a jewelry-making business. An elementary-age boy with a stutter was relieved to be learning at home with his mom. Victoria watched for a minute, then went upstairs to feed her guinea pig, Giselle.