The Complexities of Black Home Schooling

by Michael W. Apple - December 21, 2006

There is now a (slowly) growing home schooling movement among traditionally oppressed groups—such as African Americans. Thus, unlike all too many white conservative evangelicals who arrogantly claim that they are the new oppressed—something that I believe does not stand up to serious scrutiny—a number of black parents are also rejecting public and even religious schools in favor of educating their children at home.

So many significant transformations in education are occurring so rapidly that it is often hard to keep track of them. They are often driven by political pressures and social movements that need to be understood if we are to make sense of what is happening in and to schooling in our society.  And many of these transformations are more than a little conservative.  

In Educating the “RightWay (Apple, 2006; see also Apple, 2003 and Apple & Buras, 2006), I spend a good deal of time detailing the world as seen through the eyes of “authoritarian populists.”  These are conservative groups of religious fundamentalists and evangelicals whose voices in the debates over social and educational policies are now increasingly powerful.  I critically analyzed the ways in which they construct themselves as the “new oppressed,” as people whose identities and cultures are ignored by or attacked in schools and the media.  They have taken on subaltern identities and have (very selectively) re-appropriated the discourses and practices of figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King to lay claim to the fact that they are the last of the truly dispossessed groups.  

This claim to being the new oppressed has led many of them to withdraw their children from state-run institutions and embrace home schooling.  Such a practice is meant to equip their children both with armor to defend what these groups believe is their threatened culture and with a set of skills and values that will change the world so that it reflects the conservative religious commitments that are so central to their lives.  

What started out as movement that was made up largely by white conservative religious parents has now become one of the fastest growing educational reforms in the country.  Indeed, while many educators devote a good deal of their attention to reforms such as charter schools—and such schools have received a good deal of positive press—there are many fewer children in charter schools than there are being home schooled.  In 1996, home school advocates estimated that there were approximately 1.3 million children being home schooled in the United States.  More recent estimates put the figure even higher.  Given the almost reverential and rather romantic coverage in the national and local media of home schooling (with the New York Times and Time providing a large amount of very positive coverage, for example), the numbers may in fact be much higher than this and the growth curve undoubtedly is increasing.  At the very least, more than 2.2 percent of school age children in the United States are home schooled.  

My analysis of home schooling has not been positive.  I warned that it was a form of “cocooning” and that it threatened to become the educational equivalent of “gated communities.”  I also expressed worries about its ideological and religious commitments in which God is seen as only speaking to a very select group of people who see the entire society as largely a mission sphere.  In the process, I also noted that all too much of these overall commitments seemed to be based on a clear fear of pollution, of having their children be too close to the culture and body of the “Other.”

I haven’t changed my mind about these things.  But it has become clearer that there is now a (slowly) growing home schooling movement among traditionally oppressed groups—such as African Americans.  Thus, unlike all too many white conservative evangelicals who arrogantly claim that they are the new oppressed—something that I believe does not stand up to serious scrutiny—a number of black parents are also rejecting public and even religious schools in favor of educating their children at home.

Their reasons are varied and understandable: the tragic rates at which black children are miseducated in or pushed out of public schools; the stereotyping that goes on; the loss of one’s cultural and political heritage; and yes, for some, religious motivations are also there.  Let us be honest. For all too many children of color in this nation, their own schooling experience has been anything but effective and their parents are consistently marginalized by the bureaucratic and often racializing structures that pervade schools and the larger society.  And again speaking honestly, as a parent of a black child myself, I have immense sympathy for parents of color who actively try to deal with these conditions and who often make considerable personal and financial sacrifices to counter the distressing conditions they and their children face.  

Having said this, is my largely negative evaluation of the white conservative home schooling movement generalizable to black home schoolers?  This is not a simple issue.  Even though there have been hard won gains in curriculum and teaching in public schools, as I noted earlier, anyone who is sanguine about what is happening to all too many children of color in America’s schools needs to get a grip on reality.  Because of this, we need to deeply respect the immense sacrifices that some African American parents are making to school their children in difficult and trying circumstances.  Such sacrifices and commitments are visible in the accounts by African American parents who have home schooled their children (Penn-Nabrit, 2003), for example.  However, I do not think that these individual sacrifices will ultimately lead to lasting changes for the majority of children in our schools.

Thus, I ultimately come down, just barely, on the negative side.  There may indeed be short-term gains for a limited number of children—and this should not be dismissed since we must do everything we can to prevent the loss of even more children of color.  However, just as in the case of the support of vouchers by organized groups of people of color, in the long run, this is not an adequate response to the crisis (see Apple & Pedroni, 2005).  Since we know it is social movements that are the driving forces behind lasting educational change (Apple, 2006; Anyon, 2005), individualized atomistic decisions to school one’s child at home—while thoroughly understandable—cannot build momentum for the large scale transformations that are necessary.  That home schooling also requires immense financial and emotional sacrifice may also make it an unrealistic option for the majority of black parents.   

We should not criticize black parents who home school their children.  But a more powerful response in the long term requires that we redouble our efforts to create more responsive, democratic, and critical educational institutions for those children who are all too easily seen as the “Other” in this society and its schools.  There are multiple examples of such critically democratic schools whose processes of administration, curricula, teaching, and evaluation are closely connected to oppressed communities and their needs, cultures, hopes, and dreams (Apple & Beane, 2007).  Can these be extended and become more widespread in the face of the reductive tendencies embodied in such policies as No Child Left Behind with its “push out” effects (Valenzuela, 2005)?  This question is no easier to answer than the issues surrounding black home schooling.  But we will only know the answer if we continue the struggles to do so.  If we do not continue and expand our engagement in such organized and long term struggles for a system of public schooling that is worthy of its name, more and more black parents will seek alternatives, be they vouchers or home schooling.  The way to demonstrate our respect for such parents is to make it more likely that they will not have to leave public schools.

I would like to thank Quentin Wheeler-Bell for his assistance on this commentary.


Anyon, J. (2005). Radical possibilities. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2006) Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, 2nd

edition. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2003). The state and the politics of knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. and Beane, J. A. (Eds.). (2007). Democratic schools (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH:


Apple, M. W. and Buras, K. L. (Eds.). (2006). The subaltern speak: Curriculum, power, and

educational struggles. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. and Pedroni, T. (2005). Conservative alliance building and African American

support for vouchers, Teachers College Record, 107, 2068-2105.

Penn-Nabrit, P. (2003). Morning by morning. New York: Villard Books.

Valenzuela, A. (Ed.). (2005). Leaving children behind. Albany: State University of New York


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 21, 2006 ID Number: 12903, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:11:36 PM

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