By Kerry McDonald
Parents in the Granite State and across the country are clamoring for more educational choices, and greater access to those choices, so that they can find the learning environment that is the best fit for their child’s distinct needs and interests. As a longtime New Hampshire homeschooling mom, Kathryn Michelotti has seen the statewide growth of both homeschooling and other, more personalized education options over the past decade. Recognizing this mounting demand, Michelotti and fellow homeschooling mom Sharon Osborne opened Latitude Learning, a homeschool learning center, in Manchester in 2019.
Latitude Learning began as a small learning collaborative with a la carte classes and activities for local homeschoolers, but in the wake of widespread pandemic school closures and remote learning in 2020, Latitude rapidly expanded. The program quickly outgrew its small space and moved to a larger facility in Derry, where Latitude now serves 120 students, ages four to 17, by offering daily classes and clubs.
Seeing the success of Latitude Learning and the continued parent desire for more learning options in New Hampshire, Michelotti and Osborne are planning to scale their program statewide. “We hope to have a few more Latitudes around New Hampshire so more learners can thrive the way our students do,” Michelotti said. “I’d love to see a future where each child is involved in a learning center or school that reaches them, instructs in their individual learning style, and encourages them to develop their strengths and talents while supporting their individuality and promoting personal responsibility.”
This vision recently led Latitude Learning to be recognized as a quarter-finalist for the prestigious Yass Prize that rewards education entrepreneurs across the U.S. who are building innovative learning models. As an acknowledgement of their efforts, and to help further their expansion goals, Latitude Learning won a $100,000 grant this fall from the Yass Foundation.
“To be recognized and even awarded for what we are doing shows that others see we are on the right path,” Michelotti said. “Of course, we already knew this because we can see how happy our students are, but an outside organization like the Yass Foundation for Education’s acknowledgement of our mission is incredibly validating.”
New Hampshire is a national leader in both school choice programs and education entrepreneurship, helping to increase learning options for families. The state’s tax-credit scholarship program and new Education Freedom Accounts (EFA) enable income-eligible families to exit an assigned district school for a private education option that may work better for their child.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial parents and educators, such as Michelotti and Osborne, are building new learning models and launching new educational programs that broaden the supply of available options. Most of these new educational programs are low-cost, but many of them also participate in the scholarship and EFA programs, enabling greater access.
Latitude Learning, for example, charges $600 for a 16-week semester of one-day-per-week classes, which is less than $40 per day. Families can choose how many days per week to attend. Latitude is also an approved provider for both the New Hampshire EFA program and the tax-credit scholarship program, making it more widely accessible to more families.
Encouraging the proliferation of low-cost, innovative education solutions throughout New Hampshire will enable more families to find and access just the right learning environment for their child. Unfortunately, regulatory hurdles and related bureaucratic barriers can make it difficult for education entrepreneurs to start and scale their small businesses.
For Becky Owens in Chester, trying to offer sporadic homeschool programs on her farm property turned into a regulatory headache that likely would have deterred many other aspiring education entrepreneurs from moving forward. Owens had been homeschooling her own five children for several years, after pulling her oldest son from the local public elementary school because it wasn’t a good fit for her shy, sensitive boy. She wanted a more personalized educational environment for him and her other children that would be responsive to their individual learning needs and styles.
A college professor for 15 years with a Ph.D. in education, Owens decided to create that personalized learning environment, and eventually expand her offerings to other children in her community. In 2020, she decided to host occasional nature hikes on her property for small groups of local homeschoolers. She had a handful of students register for one of her hikes, and she placed a chalkboard sign in front of her house with the words “Farm Rich Nature Hike” so families could find her.
This simple gesture set off a cascade of events involving the local building inspector, who issued her a “cease and desist” letter for her farm walks. Over the subsequent weeks, Owens had to prepare numerous documents for local officials, including an aerial view of her property, and appear before the planning board to ask for permission to operate as a home-based business. She also had a property inspection from the local fire chief, even though her program was held entirely outside. All of this was required just so Owens could welcome a few children to her property for a nature walk. Her walks never exceeded 10 kids.
Eventually, Owens received approval to operate as a home-based business. “As long as I was completely outside, with no more than four cars at a time, and the kids were not being dropped off on the street, then I could continue,” said Owens, who was granted permission to run a home-based residential business but was told any growth would be limited.
“I can’t hire staff because the building inspector said I can’t. If I hire just one person, I am no longer considered a home-based business,” she said.
Owens offers periodic nature hikes, as well as a program called “Pony Pals,” that provides horse-themed interdisciplinary academic work for children once a week for two hours at a time. Additionally, she offers a once a week program for foster kids that focuses on life skills. (Owens and her husband are also foster parents.) Per her home-based business approval, all of these programs are completely outdoors.
In 2021, however, Owens discovered that the fast-growing national microschool network, Prenda, was entering New Hampshire, and that the state was using a portion of its federal COVID relief funds to make Prenda learning pods available tuition-free for New Hampshire families. Owens gravitated to Prenda, appreciating its small, mixed-age model and focus on individualized learning. She signed up as a recognized Prenda guide, able to host these learning pods at her home.
Today, Owens leads two Prenda pods on alternating days and times throughout the week, each with a maximum of 10 children in kindergarten through sixth grade. A few hundred New Hampshire children are enrolled in Prenda pods throughout the state.
As a hired guide for a national microschool network, Owens is able to operate her indoor learning pod program out of her home, but she is barred from running a similar, independent microschool program on her property.
This discrepancy, triggered by local ordinances that often prohibit the creation and expansion of home-based businesses—and especially of education-related businesses—can block home-grown educational solutions in New Hampshire. It can dissuade entrepreneurial educators and parents from offering educational programming that nearby families may want, and it can tilt the scale away from local, entrepreneurial offerings.
“Something needs to be done,” Owens said. “These local roadblocks need to go away.”
Cultivating a low-tax, low-regulation landscape in New Hampshire that encourages small business has long been a priority for Granite State voters. The emergence of a new sector of education entrepreneurship, catalyzed in large part by the state’s growing school choice programs and increasing parent demand for new and different learning options, could be encouraged and accelerated by exempting non-traditional educational offerings from outdated and often irrelevant regulations. Home education is already exempted from state statutes that define education as occurring in “schools.” But today there are many more educational programs in New Hampshire and across the U.S. that don’t fit into the category of “school” or “homeschool,” and often run into regulatory snares as a result.
Providing broad regulatory exemptions for all non-traditional educational organizations in New Hampshire would encourage education innovation and experimentation. Devising this education-focused “regulatory sandbox” could help unleash the supply of more education options for families by prompting entrepreneurial parents and educators to build new and varied learning organizations.
Additionally, modifying local zoning ordinances to allow educational services by default in residential and commercial zones would enable more learning pods, microschools, and similar non-traditional educational models to emerge.
These common regulatory barriers to entry and scale impact education entrepreneurs nationwide, as my new report for State Policy Network describes. They preclude creative education solutions from being invented and extended, and limit the assortment of education options available to families. New Hampshire is well-positioned to lessen the regulatory burden on education entrepreneurs, and encourage the introduction of an array of educational possibilities. Parent demand for more education options continues to grow, and school choice policies such as EFAs and tax-credit scholarships continue to support that demand.
Now, state and local policymakers can encourage the supply of these diverse learning options by removing regulatory hurdles that prevent or limit education entrepreneurship throughout New Hampshire. Who knows what New Hampshire’s next award-winning learning model will be?
Kerry McDonald is an education policy fellow at State Policy Network and a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. She is the author of the book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.