One Million Homeschooled Students
by Kurt J. Bauman - February 16, 2005
Why hasn’t the announcement of more than a million home-schooled children in the United States created more interest and excitement? I suspect the reason is that none of us – not educators, not researchers, not the general public – know what to make of it. Our lack of knowledge and our lack of concern may be blinding us to one of the most important forces shaping education today, and it has come time to make sense of it. Homeschooling exists at the flashpoint of current educational policy. As it continues to grow, it will press against other trends and reshape them. How government and the educational community react to the homeschooling phenomenon will decide the future of American education. There is no other policy variable that comes close to its potential importance.
Question: The U.S. Department of Education estimated in July that about 1.1 million children are home schooled, or about 2 percent of the nations 53 million children ages 6-18. The number is growing 10 times as fast as the general school-aged population, the department estimated. What is motivating this turn towards home schooling, and what is at stake when more and more of Americas students are being home schooled?
Why hasnt the announcement of more than a million home-schooled children in the United States created more interest and excitement? Perhaps its that homeschool advocacy organizations have spoiled things by claiming much higher numbers for years (Ray 2002, 2000). But I suspect the reason goes a bit deeper: None of us not educators, not researchers, not the general public know what to make of it. Our lack of knowledge and our lack of concern may be blinding us to one of the most important forces shaping education today, and it has come time to make sense of it.
Motivations for homeschooling
Current discussions of homeschooling are often premised on misunderstandings. The most glaring is the tendency to associate homeschooling with religious conservativism (e.g., Apple 2000), while. in fact, religion is cited as a primary motivation by only a minority of homeschool families (Princiotta, Bielick, and Chapman, 2004; Bielick, Chandler, and Broughman, 2001; Bauman 2002). More subtle, but much more powerful, is the idea that homeschooling is different or out of the mainstream. The problem with this misconception is not so much that it is inaccurate but that, for those who want to ignore or dismiss the phenomenon, it is too comforting.
Statistically, homeschooling families dont look very different from others (Isenberg 2002; Bielick, et al. 2001). While homeschooling parents are somewhat more likely to be well-educated and economically secure, homeschoolers are not at the extremes of education or income. They are more likely to be white than minority, but not overwhelmingly so. Moreover, the line between homeschoolers and regular school children is increasingly hard to draw, as the former are increasingly found within regular schools. A majority of homeschooled children are schooled at home for only one or two years. About one-half of homeschooling families with more than one child send some to regular school. Roughly one homeschooler in five attends school part-time or uses other resources made available in regular schools.
Why are so many seemingly typical families turning to a seemingly radical break with established educational practice? There have been few attempts to really tackle this problem. The immediate motivations often have to do with cultural or ideological differences with school, or specific problems experienced by individual children (Stevens, 2001). But we dont really know the broader forces at work.
Apple (2000) has argued that home schooling is encouraged by an attack on public schools and public institutions by conservative political forces. However, private elementary and secondary schools have not grown in the way homeschooling has the percentage of children in private school has not changed appreciably since 1970 (U.S. Census Bureau 2005). Homeschooling families themselves do not claim to be motivated by negative perceptions of schools (Bauman 2002). Welner (2002; 2000), in fact, has found that many have deep interest in supporting and improving public schools.
I believe that the meteoric growth of homeschooling is an expression of parents anxiety about changes in the broader world and the world of education. One parent starts homeschooling just as another might seek a better neighborhood, influence school policies, ask for individual development plans for children with mild learning problems, or pay money for tutoring, SAT preparation, and private schools.
While no definitive answer may yet exist to the question of parents motivation, the phenomenon of homeschooling shows that current pressures on schools have some of their roots in broadly-felt discontent with the status quo. More than any of the other educational reforms that have been developed in recent years be they charter schools, for-profit schools, voucher programs, changes to teacher qualifications or standards/high-stakes testing the rise of homeschooling shows a true, grass-roots desire for change in our educational system. Underlining this point, the rise of homeschooling is not limited to the United States, but is evident in many countries around the world, including Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and others (Beck, 2004; New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2004; Vynnycky, 2003; Taylor and Petrie, 2000).
How American education will be affected
Homeschooling exists at the flashpoint of current educational policy. As it continues to grow, it will press against other trends and reshape them. It will provide opposition to the movements for standardized testing and teacher qualifications; it will entangle choice and voucher programs in unanticipated controversy; and it will create multiple challenges for public and private schools. How government and the educational community react to the homeschooling phenomenon will decide the future of American education. There is no other policy variable that comes close to its potential importance.
One reason for its importance is the political strength of homeschooling organizations. Homeschooling families have shown great political clout at local, state, and national levels (Morgan, 2003; Stevens, 2001), and as their numbers grow so will their power. Because they are actively involved in educational and other issues (Collom and Mitchell, 2004), they can be powerful allies or opponents in political battles. Schools and teachers that want the freedom to teach without the constraints imposed by performance standards and high-stakes testing will find potential allies in homeschooling parents. Schools and teachers that want to maintain public funding for schools will find homeschooling parents among those who care most deeply about these issues.
A second reason for the importance of homeschooling on the policy front is the potential growth of schools and institutions that serve homeschoolers. Some of these may be created by homeschoolers themselves (Hill, 2000). However, most are businesses and organizations lured by the expanding homeschool market. Homeschool families typically spend around $300 to $500 on curricular materials each year (Walsh, 2002). Huerta and Gonzales (2004) have discussed how organizations that take advantage of charter laws can be reimbursed up to $3,000 to $5,000 per pupil, or as much as ten times what parents spend on their own (Borja, 2004). This opening could potentially create a market worth many billions of dollars. If organizations are able to obtain large-scale profits from the homeschool charter operational model (a current point of contention), this market has the potential to vastly expand through publicity, advertising, and pressure for legislative accommodations by increasingly wealthy educational providers.
In the face of these powerful political and economic forces enveloping the homeschooling movement, choices must be made by policymakers. The most important of these focus on how homeschoolers will be treated in terms of testing, teacher qualifications, charters, vouchers, and participation in public schools.
Testing and teacher qualifications are the easiest issues to predict. It would be politically infeasible to require homeschooled students to meet all the testing and teacher qualification requirements imposed on others. Currently, homeschoolers have simply been exempted (Home School Legal Defense Association, 2002), and these exemptions are bound to continue.
Allowing homeschoolers to take full advantage of charter and voucher opportunities is a more complex situation. This step could provide the impetus for a boom in the number of schools and students involved. Parents with no current interest in homeschooling could be drawn into this sector by advertising and incentives not available from schools with higher costs. This development would obviously be opposed by advocates for public schools. On the other hand, excluding homeschoolers from charter schools and voucher programs puts a limit on the dreams of those who envision them as a model for a new predominant model of schooling, and separates some of the parents with the strongest desire for individual schooling choice from the movement that claims to speak for them. Homeschooling participation in charters and voucher programs is likely to be a continuing battleground.
Public schools face the choice of accommodating homeschoolers or forcing them to meet their needs for school services, such as specialized courses and school activities, in other ways. While many people object to allowing homeschool students to take what they want from the schools while not participating fully in their overall life, forcing homeschoolers to make their way without assistance from public schools has obvious pitfalls. These include loss of political support for public schools, competition from alternative schools, and pressure to provide charter and voucher opportunities for homeschoolers. In their own best interest, public schools will have to learn to live with homeschoolers.
Within schools, homeschoolers will again be at a flashpoint for policy conflict on testing and standards, graduation requirements, accommodation of students with special needs, curriculum choices, and other issues. Federal, state and local policy makers will all have a role to play. Key decisions will be made about defining homeschooling, specifying the types of exemptions from emerging policy that will be granted them, and setting funding levels for homeschoolers participating in various regular school programs. It promises to be an interesting future, with homeschooling a central part of it all.
 Research has not yet shown the extent to which religion may play an important unspoken role in establishing homeschooling as a practice. It is likely, however, that the perception that religion is involved comes from the success of religious conservatives in creating highly visible advocacy organizations (Stevens, 2001).
 Homeschooling families do stand out in one respect. Homeschoolers are more likely than children in regular school to be in two-parent families with only one spouse working (Isenberg, 2002; Bauman, 2002). This is a large population, and despite assumptions, not declining. Moreover, there are many homeschooling families that do not fit this profile, and as resources for homeschoolers grow, they may come to be found in families of all types.
 Several possible motivations have been offered by Stevens (2001), including the role of homeschooling leaders and thinkers, the growth of networks of supportive homeschool families, the increasing societal emphasis on self-actualization as a goal for raising children, and the search for a meaningful role for women who might otherwise be, as some described it, just a housewife. Each of these ideas has its merits. However, none of these puts enough emphasis on what homeschooling tells us about education itself.
 Some examples of additional policy issues are as follows: Funding provided to public schools for accommodating homeschoolers will largely determine whether local schools are willing and able to provide services. Definitional problems will abound. For example, schools in which they participate will be under pressure to define poorly performing students as homeschoolers, and high-achievers as regular
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