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During the past 50 years, no segment of elementary education has prospered against the odds more than homeschooling. The movement has grown despite a lack of the resources available to public schools, without the air of exclusivity of private schools, and absent the brand of the college prep education of parochial schools.
Homeschool advocates and practitioners have overcome opposition from the National Education Association; they’ve cleared the restrictions, regulations and other hurdles erected by state or local school officials; and they’ve developed a network of support for parent-instructors who otherwise have little access to professional development.
No doubt other alternatives to traditional public education, such as charter schools, have encountered some of these same impediments. But homeschooling has thrived in the face of all these challenges. In 1980, an estimated 10,000 American families were involved in homeschooling. By 2012, about 1.8 million, or 3.4 percent of all K-12 students, were homeschooled.
That number likely topped two million in 2016, meaning more American students are now homeschooled than enrolled in parochial schools. SAT scores for homeschoolers are above the national average. On the ACT, they score above the public school average but below that for private schools.
Considering all of that, clearly it’s time for states to do more to acknowledge the viability of homeschooling as an educational option, and provide direction and information for parents seeking non-traditional schooling. Why the states? Because education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, leaving its oversight to state and local officials.
Homeschooling has been legal in all 50 states since 1993. Yet relatively little information is made available to parents about homeschooling as an option. In Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education lists and links to all private and parochial schools in the commonwealth. Yet its website provides no equivalent links to statewide homeschooling organizations. Why leave out valuable information that could assist families when making educational decisions?
The National Center for Education Statistics estimates a national average expenditure of $11,011 per public school student. But homeschooling families incur their own educational costs for everything from books and technology to packaged curricula and testing services. That means the two million homeschoolers essentially reduce public education costs by about $22 billion per year. Yet they pay the same taxes as other families to fund their district schools, which they generally do not use to any large degree.
Since school superintendents are responsible for all students of compulsory attendance age in their districts, why not allow homeschoolers access to extracurricular activities? No doubt that would be beneficial to homeschoolers and the community.
Education officials must also recognize that standardized assessments do not translate to homeschooled children. In public schools, all students are learning the same things at the same grade level. But in the homeschool environment, output and mastery of subject matter is valued over letter grades, seat time and time on task. The concept of “one size fits all” does not work on a curricular level or on assessments.
Practitioners of homeschooling can also offer some valuable input to education reform discussions. Homeschooled students may appear isolated, but in fact they are more reflective of the real world because they integrate with children of all ages rather than same-age peers. After decades of refinement, let’s recognize that homeschooling families have run incubators of educational ideas and initiatives. The homeschooling emphasis on depth and mastery, rather than traditional concepts of time and place, could offer some ideas on addressing the needs of individual students.
Legislators should also move slowly before applying voucher programs to homeschoolers. The Trump administration is promoting school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives that would extend public funding to private and religious institutions. Many homeschoolers resist inclusion in any voucher initiatives, arguing that monetary subsidies inevitably come with strings attached. Losing the freedom to choose the best curricula for their children, choose how to implement and change it, and determine the appropriate assessment is not worth the trade-off.
However, undoubtedly a number of homeschoolers feel otherwise and would welcome the financial assistance. The point is that any legislation should take into account this diversity of opinion. If the intent is to provide families with educational choice, it would make sense to include an opt-out provision.
Homeschooling today reflects the diversity and demographics we see emerging in our country. The percentage of whites in the homeschooling population has declined, while the percentage of Hispanics in this population has grown.
Homeschooling families are also black, Jewish, Native American, and Hawaiian native. They are families that often accept a loss of income for the education they prefer. About 90 percent of homeschooling families are two-parent households, and in more than half of these, only one parent is in the workforce.
In short, homeschooling is now part of the educational mix. It may not be the best choice for most families, but it works for many. Let’s recognize its place and give it the support it needs to be most effective.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
William Heuer is on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Home Learning Association, the Commonwealth’s oldest statewide homeschooling advocacy organization. He is also co-author of a recent report on homeschooling for the Pioneer Institute. His wife, Loretta, homeschooled their two sons from birth through high school.