It’s back to school time. And, for millions of children, that means back to homeschool.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 3.3 percent of school-aged children in the United States are homeschooled. That’s about 2.5-million children. This number is far from a majority of the 76-million school-aged children in the country, but it means that the homeschool movement is now in every state in the nation.
The desire of parents to obey the biblical admonition to teach their children was strong at the birth of the modern homeschool movement in the 1970s. More recently, technology and the growth of club sports teams for elite athletes – instead of high school teams – have contributed to the growth of homeschooling.
Another key contributor to the growth is the growth itself. Success breeds success. Most towns and cities, large and small, have at least a few homeschool families who can rely on each other for support, ideas, and cooperative activities. Many have homeschool co-ops or hybrid schools that allow families to get help with advanced subjects such as calculus, physics, and other college prep courses.
The result? Homeschooling has become what historian Allan Carlson calls a viable “Third Way” cultural movement. It is neither institutional nor individualistic, but family and community-based. Today, homeschoolers represent sizable portions of the student body at Patrick Henry College, The King’s College, Hillsdale College, Grove City College, and elsewhere. Dr. Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University has credited homeschooling for a renaissance in classical education, going so far as to say that homeschoolers are “arising to preserve the Great Books of the Western intellectual tradition.”
The growth of the movement has changed it. A recent article in WORLD said, “It’s no longer a movement of non-establishment people on the left and evangelical believers on the right: Nationwide, only 21 percent of parents in 2012 cited religious or moral instruction as their reason for homeschooling, down from 36 percent in 2007.”
The movement is changing, and it is also contributing to change in American education. Private schools now account for about 10 percent of school-aged children. Charter schools have more than 3-million students, or more than 6 percent. Add homeschooling, and you discover that nearly 20 percent of all school-aged children in this country get their education in a form that – for the most part – did not exist a half-century ago.
The modern homeschooling movement began in the 1970s, when a few pioneers, often in acts of civil disobedience, took their children out of public schools they found to be increasingly secular. The Home School Legal Defense Association, founded in 1983, successfully fought compulsory attendance laws and worked to have other laws changed.
Today, homeschool conferences attracting thousands of people happen in almost every state. Homeschool co-ops have flourished. Entrepreneurs, many of them homeschoolers themselves, formed businesses to serve this market.
And homeschooling has become more economically, racially, and ethnically diverse. According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, about five percent of homeschoolers are black and seven percent are Hispanic. These statistics come closer to the actual demographic makeup of America than most public school systems, which have become re-segregated in recent years.
Many families choose homeschooling for academic reasons. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, “The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests. (The public school average is the 50th percentile; scores range from 1 to 99.) A 2015 study found black homeschool students to be scoring 23 to 42 percentile points above Black public school students.”
And homeschooling is not exclusively for the privileged. According to North Carolinians for Home Education, the “median income for home-educating families in North Carolina is actually less than for all married-couple families nationwide.”
As the homeschooling movement has matured, second-generation homeschooling families fueled even more growth. WORLD tells the story of Martha Hazelrigg, who homeschooled her children in the 1980s and 90s. Today, her oldest daughter, Christy Harmeson, homeschools her five children. One big difference today? In the 80s, homeschool families often attracted unwanted attention when they ventured out during the school day. Sometimes even from police and school officials. Today, Harmeson “usually sees families like hers at parks, stores, libraries, and hiking trails. In the San Francisco Bay area, where Harmeson lives, museums, aquariums, and even the University of California Berkeley host ‘homeschool days’ or special classes for home-educated children. These programs sell out quickly.”
Challenges remain for the homeschool movement. One challenge is the possibility of increased government regulation or oversight as homeschooling grows, or the temptation of taxpayer funding – with strings attached.
For example, California now provides money to some homeschool families through its charter schools program. Homeschoolers can get $3,200 per child. But families must spend the money with state-approved vendors. It can’t be used for anything that remotely smacks of religion.
Alaska has a similar program, with $2,000 going to each of the 10,000 students in the program. More than 40 states, plus the District of Columbia, have charter school programs, and several of them are experimenting with similar homeschool charters.
Long-time homeschool advocate Mike Smith, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, warns that taking government money for homeschooling expenses will inevitably lead to more government oversight. But so far, the regulations are minimal. In California many Christian families have taken advantage of the program.
Before the Reformation, the vast majority of people could not read. The Reformers’ emphasis on individual Bible study caused a reformation in literacy. Literacy became one of the Christian church’s gifts to the world. Now, 500 years later, the modern homeschooling movement, born out of the evangelical church of the 1970s, is no longer a fringe movement, but an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. It is challenging the education establishment, fueling entrepreneurship and innovation, and producing better-educated citizens.
It is yet one more of the Christian church’s gifts to the world.
Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.