Here’s how homeschooling is changing in America

As children head back to school, an increasing number of their homeschooled peers will be starting their academic year as well. Homeschooling in the United States is growing at a strong pace.

Recent statistics indicate that 1.5 million children were homeschooled in the United States in 2007. This is up significantly from 1.1 million children in 2003 and 850,000 children in 1999.

The homeschooling movement first emerged in earnest during the 1980s. Back then it was largely led by evangelical Christians. But as the movement has grown, it has also changed. Today’s homeschooling families may increasingly welcome cooperation with their local public school districts. In my own research, I have seen how diverse homeschoolers now are. This diversity challenges any simplistic understanding of what homeschooling is and what impact it will have on the public school system.

So how do we understand this evolution in American education?

Early trends

In fact, homeschooling was common up until the late 19th century. Most children received a substantial part of their education within the home. In the late 19th century, states started passing compulsory attendance laws. These laws compelled all children to attend public schools or a private alternative. In this way, education outside the home became the norm for children.

It was in the 1970s that American educator John Holt emerged as a proponent of homeschooling. He challenged the notion that the formal school system provided the best place for children to learn. Slowly, small groups of parents began to remove their children from the public schools.

By the 1980s, homeschooling families had emerged as an organized public movement. During that decade, more than 20 states legalized homeschooling. For the most part, evangelical Christians led these battles. Organizations such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, founded in 1983, provided the necessary legal and financial backing for these families.

At the time, homeschooling was seen to be in conflict with secular school systems. Religious parents came to define the public face of the homeschooling.

Reasons for homeschooling

Today, homeschooling is becoming part of the mainstream. It is legal in all 50 states. In addition, a growing number of states are making attempts to engage the homeschooled population for at least part of the day.

For example, 28 states do not prevent homeschooled students from participating in public school interscholastic sports. At least 15 more states are considering “Tim Tebow Laws” – named after the homeschooled athlete – that would allow homeschoolers access to school sports.

The overall homeschool movement is also much more diverse. For example, sociologists Philip Q. Yang and Nihan Kayaardi argue that the homeschool population does not significantly differ from the general U.S. population. Put another way, it is not really possible to assume anything about the religious beliefs, political affiliations or financial status of homeschooling families anymore.

Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) provide further corroboration. In 2008, the NCES found that only 36 percent of the homeschooling families in their survey chose “the desire for religious or moral instruction” as their primary reason for their decision to homeschool. At the same time, other reasons, such as a concern about the school environment, were just as important to many homeschool families.

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