Boundless Education: Unlocking Learning Spaces

If we think about the basic building blocks of any learning environment, we start with students and educators (clearly the most important components). But shortly thereafter we realize that students and educators have to meet somewhere. Access to facilities is central to launching new educational ventures. Not only that, rethinking education can often mean rethinking where it happens. The traditional school setting, with classrooms branching off from locker-lined hallways, is not where every educational model can or should operate.

As an organization that supports founders providing alternatives to conventional schooling, VELA is interested in how founders access space. The right setting can provide a conducive learning environment that encourages active engagement and motivates learners. A comfortable and safe environment is paramount for effective learning. Creating a sense of community within nontraditional settings fosters collaboration, peer learning, and social interaction. 

At the same time, facilities can be a huge budget line item. Understanding both how educators are using space as well as how they are paying for it can tell us a lot of useful information.

VELA conducted a survey among its founders to understand the approaches they are taking to develop enduring operational models for their learning spaces. A section of the survey asked about where learners spend most of their time while participating in founders’ programs.

Space Matters

About 9% of founders indicated that they use public or free space, 13% use a residence as their primary facility, and 10% use space they own. A large majority of founders (63%), however, rent a space for their learners to spend most of their time learning. 

Facilities chart

There are tradeoffs to each of these options. Renting can offer founders flexibility in terms of location and scalability as it allows for easy relocation or adjustments in space according to changing needs. Upfront costs are also lower, perhaps an important consideration for many startups. And usually, responsibility for maintenance and repairs falls on the landlord and relieves founders and staff of having to worry about or manage these. The tradeoffs associated with renting may be limited control over rental space in making modifications, uncertainty about future costs, and lack of long-term stability in that leases might not be renewed.

Owning a space, on the other hand, grants founders with complete control over a property, allowing them to customize and adapt a space as they see fit for meeting educational needs. It offers stability and certainty in the long run. And if a founder needs to change settings and leave a property they own, the property can be sold or repurposed to generate additional income for the learning environment. The tradeoffs with owning include higher initial costs and bearing responsibility for things like maintenance and repairs, which can increase costs significantly.

Diverse Learning Environments, Different Access Approaches

When we dig deeper into the survey data, we see some variation in learning location by type of learning environment. Renting space is the primary means of securing a learning location for homeschool co-ops (74% of co-ops responding to the survey), homeschools (46%), hybrid homeschools (92%), learning pods (30%), microschools (66%), and private schools (76%). Only 8% of virtual schools rent a space. Rather, most virtual schools (69%) use a residence as their primary location.

Facilities chart

The primary learning locations for learning pods are most evenly distributed, where 15% use a public or free space, 15% own a space, 20% use a residence, and 30% rent a space. There is also somewhat more variation in primary learning location among homeschool programs, where 14% report using a public or free space, 14% own a space, and 21% use a residence. Like most other types, most homeschools (46%) rent a space.

Diverse Landlords

Most VELA founders rent or pay fees to use spaces for their learners and access locations from a variety of sources. Churches or other worship/faith-affiliated spaces represent the primary provider for renters, where 45% of renters use this setting as their primary location. About one-third of founders lease with a company or individual, 12% use a community organization or nonprofit, and 8% use a public department such as public library, public school, or public office building.

Facilities chart

Although the survey doesn’t allow us to determine the reasons for these differences, there are a few plausible reasons why many founders who rent do so from churches and other faith-based organizations. Renting from churches can provide practical, financial, and sometimes cultural advantages for learning environments and homeschool groups while fostering a sense of community and support. For starters, churches may simply offer more competitive rates for rental space relative to other options. Perhaps this is because they often prioritize community engagement and may see renting to schools or homeschool groups as a way to support education and build relationships with families in the area. Thus, they’re willing to rent space at low-cost to individuals like VELA founders.

Sometimes, religious learning environments or homeschool groups find it beneficial to use church facilities because they align with their values or teachings. This can create an environment that feels comfortable for the students and educators. Churches also have amenities like parking, playgrounds, and audio-visual equipment which make them attractive options to founders that use them. They also typically use their space during evenings and on weekends and leave space available during typical school hours. They are willing to rent their space because not only does it provide an additional source of revenue for churches, but churches would prefer to have community members using it for productive activities during the week and times when buildings are going unused. Finally, renting from churches may offer opportunities for collaboration, such as shared events, volunteerism, or access to additional resources within the church community that founders find attractive.

Results from the VELA survey indicate that founders are utilizing a variety of spaces. For VELA founders, the choice of space likely depends on different factors like educational philosophy, budget, available resources, and adaptability. Each space type offers distinct benefits and challenges, and the best choice often aligns with the specific needs and preferences of the educational providers and families involved. 

Conclusions and Takeaways

The data presented here offer an interesting and thorough picture of the facilities that VELA founders utilize and the ways in which they pay for them. Understanding this environment can help better support founders in the future, as we better understand where this important budget line item is going.

Three key takeaways:

  1. The majority of VELA founders (63%) rent the space that they use. The rental rate is even higher for homeschool co-ops, hybrid homeschools, and private schools.
  2. Those that rent do so from a variety of providers. It is most common for founders to rent from a church or faith-affiliated organization, but that is closely followed by private landlords. Still others rent from community non-profit organizations, and a small percentage rent from public facilities.
  3. One simple way to help early-stage educational entrepreneurs is to offer them free or reduced-price rent. Perhaps if the educational provider shares the same faith as a church, that organization could offer a space for free or at a discount. But it doesn’t just have to be religion. There are many mission-oriented non-profit and for-profit organizations with excess space that could make it available for educational entrepreneurs.

This post was authored by Marty Lueken and Michael McShane in partnership with VELA. Marty Lueken is Director of the Fiscal Research and Education Center at EdChoice. Michael McShane is Director of National Research at EdChoice.