There has never been a better time to be an educational innovator in the United States. As the mass exodus of students from public education continues, more and more parents are hungry for a truly customizable education. So far, private, charter, and traditional homeschooling have been the primary beneficiaries of these new developments.
But even with new school choice programs popping up all around the country, many families still remain underserved. As great as private and charter schools are, their growth (and their curriculum, in charter schools’ case) is limited by state politics, geographic constraints, and the simple lack of capital. And not every family has the time or the means to homeschool their children.
EdChoice’s Morning Consult poll found that 60 percent of parents would prefer to have their kids learn from home at least once a week (15 percent would prefer to keep them at home full time), and 59 percent would choose a school other than a public school if they had the opportunity and means to do so. Nevertheless, over 80 percent of American students attend traditional public schools. More than anything, needy families need an escape hatch, and school choice policies alone will be insufficient if there are not enough choices to meet demand.
Enter nonprofits like the VELA Education Fund. Rather than tell communities what to do, as some nonprofits and investors do, VELA “invests in everyday entrepreneurs – students, parents, educators, and community leaders – who are envisioning new approaches that meet learners’ and families’ needs.” These entrepreneurs then use educational models like homeschooling co-ops, microschools, and after-school programs to advertise and deliver educational services to families who want and need them.
This approach may be met with some healthy skepticism. After all, one study from the National Center on Charitable Statistics found that 30 percent of all nonprofits cease to exist after ten years, while other data from Forbes indicate that half of all chartered nonprofits “fail or stall” within a few years. Passion alone is not enough to make a legitimate difference. Even so, the growing number of entrepreneurs and entities funded by VELA suggests that it’s not an ordinary nonprofit.
For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, VELA partnered with MicroschoolingNV and the city of North Las Vegas, Nevada to launch the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy (SNUMA), which offered free, in-person learning opportunities to 150 K-8 students. Even after in-person instruction resumed for most students, SNUMA has continued to serve as an extra resource for homeschooling students.
Other, preexisting microschools have seen immense growth with VELA’s help. Barefoot University “forest schools,” originally based in my hometown of Dallas, have grown to 900 students across multiple states, and they plan to add 600 more students before long. Classeteria, a homeschool resource center which uses a shopping mall in South Carolina as its home office, expects growth of more than 600% in the next few years.
Perhaps VELA’s most promising project is Adamo Education in Arizona. The numbers seem modest — Adamo served 28 students last year, and is adding another 80 this year. However, Adamo is led by Tamara Becker, the former head of Arizona’s largest virtual charter school network, giving the microschool network enormous potential going forward.
Policy changes like programs establishing education savings accounts (or any type of school choice) are necessary to grant families the choice to pursue alternative education. But that won’t be enough to revolutionize educational freedom. The nonprofit sector must serve as a mediator, empowering entrepreneurs in education to reach needy families, and allowing those families to exercise the new opportunities available to them. VELA is leading the way, connecting educational entrepreneurs to families who want a different educational experience for their children.
Not every nonprofit can be a VELA, but if there were more like it, the educational landscape would be the better for it.