by Kerry McDonald
When Ben Ashfield and Tammy Tiranasar couldn’t find their preferred educational environment for their two younger children, they decided to build it. Ben works in advertising and Tammy is an artist, but first and foremost they are entrepreneurial parents who want the best for their children. Last fall, the couple took over a vacated classroom space in Mountainside, New Jersey, and created The Village Electric as a full-day, colearning center for local children ages two to twelve, open five days a week. They launched with 45 kids and several teachers.
This year, their program continues to thrive, but Ben and Tammy aren’t content with creating just one alternative learning model that satisfies their family’s needs. They want their space to become an incubator for many other entrepreneurial parents and teachers who wish to build microschools and colearning communities of their own.
“The benefit of The Village Electric is making it easier to get involved in education and to innovate in education,” said Ben, likening his vision to that of WeWork and related coworking spaces that help to foster collaboration and knowledge-sharing. I talked with Ben and Tammy on this week’s episode of the LiberatED podcast.
“We felt we could benefit from creating a community for kids where we are working together, but it’s also a place for entrepreneurial teachers to start their vision of what school can be,” Ben continued. “It’s a place for people to start co-ops if they’re homeschoolers. It’s a place where homeschoolers can find community on their schedule. It’s a place where people can do their online learning except do it in a community of people learning other things. I would love to see an explosion of innovation happening like what you saw in Silicon Valley 15 years ago where people are trying lots of different things.”
Over the past two years, the Garden State has emerged as an ideal spot to pursue education entrepreneurship and invent a variety of schooling alternatives. You may recall my conversation earlier this year with Jill Perez, a long-time teacher and supervisor of student-teachers at the university level, who created a “pandemic pod” in 2020 with other New Jersey families. She then shifted that into a full-fledged microschool last fall, opening with more than 40 students, along with teachers she recruited from the New York City public schools. She recently purchased a building for her microschool and her program continues to grow.
Similarly, last spring I spoke with Lorianne Bolotin, an immigrant physician and midwife who never thought she would be in the education business until school closures prompted her to homeschool her children. Like Jill, she created a pod with local families and turned that into an established microschool in leased commercial space in a New Jersey office park. Her program also continues to expand and evolve, including her efforts to support a network of similar microschools across the country.
What is it about New Jersey that is making it a developing hub of education entrepreneurship and creative learning options? Certainly prolonged school closures and related pandemic policies contributed to more families exiting district schools for private education options, including homeschooling. New Jersey public schools experienced lengthy closures and reopened with mask mandates and other policies that frustrated some parents. The New Jersey Department of Education reported that the state’s traditional public schools lost a record 18,000 students during the 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 school years, reflecting a larger trend in declining public school enrollment nationwide since 2020. Enrollment declines were steepest in school districts that remained closed longer and relied more on remote learning, as well as those that kept mask mandates, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute.
New Jersey is also one of the least restrictive states for homeschooling, with no notification requirement for parents who want to homeschool their children, and few regulations. This ease of homeschooling has contributed to the proliferation of microschools, learning centers, and similar schooling alternatives, and all of the New Jersey microschools I have spotlighted this year operate as full-time, drop-off programs for homeschoolers. Some also offer part-time options as well. This enables families to be integrally involved with their children’s education while providing the flexibility for parents to continue working full-time and allowing their children to have a consistent peer group and ongoing academic enrichment.
These New Jersey microschools also tend to be less costly than other private schools in the state. For example, The Village Electric’s annual tuition is $10,500 for a full-day, Monday through Friday program, while the average New Jersey private school tuition is 42 percent higher than that. If New Jersey adopted school choice policies like those in Arizona and West Virginia that enable education funding to follow students instead of going to school districts, then microschools and similar learning communities would be accessible to even more families.
Some New Jersey microschools, including The Village Electric, are recipients of microgrants from VELA Education Fund, a non-profit organization that provides funding to non-traditional education organizations and schooling alternatives. VELA grant recipients frequently use their funds to help provide scholarships and tuition assistance to families who need it.
New Jersey education entrepreneurs are embracing an ethos of permissionless innovation, creating new learning solutions that work well for their children and others in their communities rather than trying to change an entrenched traditional school system. “As parents, we need to exercise our right to educate our children in the way that we think they need to be educated, and not ask for permission for that,” said Ben. “If you’re going to your school board and fighting with your public school, while I so appreciate that and understand that, we also need to just exercise our right to educate our children. That’s what inspired Tammy and me. We asked: How can we do something productive where we don’t feel like we’re wasting our energy trying to change something that really has no interest in changing?”
More entrepreneurial parents and educators in New Jersey and beyond are asking, and answering, that question.
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Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, education policy fellow at State Policy Network, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly email newsletter here.
Photo “Downtown Newark, New Jersey” by Ken Lund. CC BY-SA 2.0.