Who Chooses Homeschooling and Why?

Posted on

Homeschooling in the United States is estimated to be at about 1.5 – 2 million students today. While this is a small percentage (3-4 %) of the total estimated 55,000,000 American students in grades PK-12, it is still a significant number of people, and that number is increasing 7-15% each year. They have above average family income and educational background. They are mostly two-parent families with the mother dedicated to be in charge of the schooling. The children seem to do as well or even better academically and socially than their peers in the public schools (Mackey 2011). Also, parents choosing homeschooling are mostly Christian (94%), and white (77%). This paper will address two questions: what factors have caused an increase in elementary and secondary level homeschooling in the United States in recent years; and what subgroups have become more attracted to this option over this period of time?

There have been two major subgroups attracted to homeschooling, one concerned with maintaining family moral and religious values, the other concerned with traditional schools not meeting their academic expectations; but environmental safety has grown to become a third major subgroup. Other factors causing increased homeschooling are travel distance, mobility, education of women, special needs, and internet communication.  These subgroups follow a long history of homeschooling. Homeschooling is not a new idea in the United States. It began as a movement in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, but it had existed in the country much earlier. Homeschooling in the early days was done mostly out of necessity (travel distance, etc.) Even though all the colonies had set up public schools, not all children could or did attend. Several well known early Americans, such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Quincy Adams, and Mark Twain had much of their education at home (Winters 2001). Not only did the colonies establish schools, they also made attendance compulsory. The first compulsory education law was passed in Massachusetts in 1642. That law made education a state responsibility. In 1647 a law was passed requiring the establishment of schools (Gelbrich 1999). The passing of required education laws moved from the colonies to the states, and by 1852 all states had these laws. Public schooling was generally accepted for everyone who could attend. The laws were not the same in all states however, with differences reflecting residents’ views on how much school or whether to go to private schools.

It was not long before the federal government established its Department of Education in 1867, whose purpose was to “assist the states in establishing effective school systems”, mainly by collecting and distributing information on education (ED.gov). Over the years the Department expanded its role to providing financial support to different educational institutions and activities. However, there were always some who did not fit into the school system, so there was always some homeschooling mainly for practical reasons such as population spreading (some schools were just too far away).

In the 1960s and 70s, major cultural and social changes set the stage for a greater role for homeschooling. These include dissatisfaction with the growing school bureaucracy (complex, inflexible departments in the school administration) and distrust of a growing lack of religious and moral instruction. Also the growth of the suburbs, mobility and political activism (especially by women), and more widespread women’s education led to a greater number of more independent and capable mothers who were living in good sized suburban homes. Some of these were willing to act on their dissatisfaction and take on the task of schooling their children themselves (Gaither 2009).

Laws were passed legalizing homeschooling making it a more legitimate option for families to choose. For a long time the states’ education laws were vague or non-existent regarding homeschooling, but they began to change. As early as 1950, there was a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court declaring home schools to be classed as private schools, and therefore lawful. Ohio, Nevada and Utah were the first three states in the U.S. (in 1983) that legally permitted homeschooling, but they required that parents have a “current state teacher’s certification” (Winters 2001). By 1985 thirteen states had passed legislation supporting homeschooling, and only eight years later, by 1993, every state had legalized it, as the numbers of homeschooled students grew. While these laws did not require parents to have a teaching certificate, they were not the same either, and parents had to be sure to observe the particular laws in their state. Educators neither understood homeschooling or supported it.

In recent years homeschooling has become a recognized part of American education and is an increasingly attractive alternative to conventional education. “The modern homeschool movement actually began in the early 1980’s with about 60,000 to 125,000 children receiving home based education”. Not many people were aware of homeschooling before the 1980’s (Winters 2001). However, by this time there was at least one small organization of homeschooling parents, and those groups have grown over time. For those dissatisfied with the public schools, there were a variety of private schools available, especially for the religious groups. However, some parents, especially conservative Christians, did not favor private schooling because “some families couldn’t afford the tuition; some disagreed with the theology their local school(s) espoused; some had negative experiences with principals or teachers; some, especially those with special needs children, felt that the private school couldn’t adequately address their child’s individual circumstances; some believed that the Bible gave responsibility for education to parents only; and some, especially mothers, simply wanted to spend more time with their children” (Gaither 2009).

In 1983, a lawyer named Michael Farris formed the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which was active in both promoting and defending homeschooling around the country. This was an effective organization, and it was helpful in leading a movement that already was growing. This organization is still very active today. In addition to the HSLDA, two well respected educational figures became leaders for the movement. In the late 1970s there was John Holt, who had been a vocal critic of the school system since the 1960s. His concern was that the schools limited the learning process by trying to teach everyone the same things in the same way. He wrote several books on children’s education, including How Children Fail and How Children Learn, and in 1977 he started publishing a magazine Growing Without Schooling which was the first national magazine to focus on homeschooling. The other was Raymond Moore and his wife Dorothy, Seventh Day Adventists and educators, who in the early 1980s became the voice of the conservative Christians who did not like the complex structure of the public schools and lack of religious values. They disliked the institutional approach of the schools, and spoke out about the successes of homeschooled children. Both Holt and Moore led support groups for homeschooling, and “these groups usually accepted all comers regardless of religious affiliation or pedagogical philosophy” (Gaither 2008). Both men had strong Christian values however. It took time for the country to accept these ideas. At first “Americans recoiled against the notion of children being kept out of school, but as they listened to Holt describing how schools destroy the native curiosity of children, or to Moore citing scores of studies supposedly showing that early institutionalization damages children, and as they saw that many homeschooled children were excelling academically, attitudes and laws shifted” (Gaither 2008).

Studies of families in Oregon and Utah identified multiple reasons for homeschooling: religious, academic, social development, and New Age consciousness. Parents expressed their desire for control and protection, their children’s realization of goals, and family closeness.  Among these families, two major themes can be identified. First, that it was the parents’ responsibility to educate their children. These people took their responsibility seriously, and valued family unity and relationships. “The desire to control the ideological content of their children’s education oriented these families to homeschooling, while enhancing family relationships, maintaining family bonds, and strengthening family ties were their desired objectives” (Mayberry 1989). Second, there was dissatisfaction with the public school system. These parents thought they could teach their children better than the schools could, and protect them from the secular environment. “By transmitting to their children their own ideological views they hoped to protect their children from “undesired” ideologies or social influences that could potentially fragment the family’s values and system of beliefs” (Mayberry 1989). In general these parents “were not united by any particular world view, but believed that they, as parents, were better able than schools to provide their children with positive and nurturing learning experiences” (Mayberry 1989).

Homeschooling was not for everyone, however, despite how attractive it might appear to be. The typical family has two parents, a decent income, and an educated mother willing to give up a career and educate her children. “Homeschooling is nearly impossible without at least one full-time houseparent, and the conservative Protestant celebration of the stay-at-home mom gave it a far larger population of possible recruits than more liberal orientations, which tend to sanction public roles for women” (Gaither 2009).

A question always asked about homeschooling is whether it is effective. How well do the children do on academic testing, how do they do socially, and how do they compare to public school children? National standardized test results from 1998 show that home schooled children do significantly better than their public school counterparts, by as much as 30 percentile points across multiple test categories and multiple grade levels (Rudner 1999). Even students from lower income groups with less educated parents still perform significantly better than average, and these students do not usually do better than the national public school testing norms (Farris 2000).

Although there were always multiple reasons for parents choosing homeschooling, the main theme seemed to be moral and religious values. Conservative Christian Protestants were a major part of the movement and still are. Surveys from 2003-5 show about 92-94% of homeschool parents classify themselves as Christian. They are mostly white, but over the years the minority percentage has grown to about 23% (Mackey 2011). Of these, African Americans and Hispanics dominate, but other groups such as Native Americans, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and Muslims participate as well (Gaither 2009).

While religious, moral, and academic concerns were the main factors influencing the choice of homeschooling until recently, the 2003 surveys show that school environment (safety, drugs, negative peer pressure) was the most mentioned concern (Mackey 2011). It turns out that as the homeschooling movement was growing, so was school violence, due in part to the racial tensions brought about by the forced bussing of students starting in the 1960s. The bussing issue was serious, as “court-ordered bussing to racially integrated public schools was for many the last straw” (Gaither 2008).

Gallup polls from the early 1970s found that the public thought school safety, called “discipline”, was the number one problem of the school systems (Warner 1999). While the degree of violence seemed to level off by the 1990s, the issue remained. Feelings of the public was not helped by some extreme cases like the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. The 2003 survey results highlighting public school environment could be indicating that school safety will be the major factor driving the choice of homeschooling from now on. The link below shows a table from the National Center for Education Statistics entitled “Reasons for Homeschooling”. This table shows data supporting my thesis that the dominant subgroups continue to be parents concerned with religious and moral issues, academics, and the school environment (safety) (NCES 2003).

Table: Reasons for Homeschooling

Additional reasons families find homeschooling desirable are because their child has special talents that need much time each day to develop, and some have children with special needs (such as autism) where public school placement would be inappropriate. “Many families with children in time-consuming activities such as music or dance programs, sports, acting, or modeling have turned to homeschooling for its flexible scheduling. Parents with children who have special needs of all sorts, from autism to peanut allergies, are finding home-based education a more convenient and comfortable approach for their child’s needs. Some families are attracted to home schooling to accommodate their traveling lifestyle” (Gaither 2008). These parents seem to be a small percentage of the total families however.

Student social development has been questioned as a possible issue for home schoolers, but evidence available seems to show no lack of social skills. These children often interact socially with a variety of people in their community, many who will be adults. “All objective evidence indicates that homeschooled children are well-adjusted members of society. To the extent that homeschooled children are different from others, it appears to be a socially positive difference” (Farris 2000). Such findings encourage homeschooling as a choice.

A new development in education related to home schooling is the virtual charter school, which is an online combination of public, charter, and homeschooling. As of 2008, there were almost 150 of these schools across the country providing new curricula and enjoying some public funding. A national company “K-12 Company” founded in 1999 is a leader in providing the curriculum, computers, and support staff to virtual charter schools around the country. This is an interesting development, because it has William Bennett, former Secretary of Education, as chairman of the board. It claims to offer a world-class curriculum for everyone covering math, language arts, science, history, art, and music. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence developed by E. D. Hirsch in 1999. Over 2000 students have studied under this system in California through 2005. Family characteristics of these students are similar to those of homeschool families – predominantly white, above average income, educated parents, and Christian. (Klein 2008)

For many, homeschooling is becoming increasingly attractive with educated mothers as teachers. It is able to focus on children with special needs by giving them more personal attention than would be offered in most public or private schooling. Family moral and religious values can be instilled without the influence of school curriculum. In addition, safety concerns are avoided, travel is not necessary (although many are doing it by choice), and computers make possible the sharing of academic information.

A family friend from Newton, MA has a daughter being home schooled. The mother calls her personally designed program a “traveling school”. Her daughter started out at the prestigious Park School (a private school in Brookline, MA), leaving after the second grade. The nine year old does online CTY, a course designed for talented youth by John Hopkins University, does a two-hour reading group in Cambridge with Maureen Carey, a well known home school educator, does online reading and blogging with other students, has an English tutor for reading and writing, goes to the Russian Math School in Newton, MA on Saturday mornings, has a private math tutor, does CTY (talented youth) math through Stanford University online, goes to Habitat in Belmont, MA for science, and has a Latin tutor. She belongs to an orchestra and chorus. There are many free laboratories offered (MIT), and the Museum of Fine Arts has classes and art projects for home schoolers for $8.50 per week. Homeschool parents share many free opportunities by posting online. They share driving children to different places and tutoring skills. They also share what they find out about the many free homeschool opportunities.

On the other end of the special needs spectrum is my ten-year old nephew who has been diagnosed with autism. A classroom situation was too overwhelming and upsetting for him. He is homeschooled with specialists (speech therapists, occupational therapists, and an academic tutor trained to work with children like him).  Two of the five days he is tutored along with another boy on the spectrum, but they had to be well matched. They are taken on field trips and to gymnasiums to have a good time and socialize with other children. Unfortunately, this is very costly. Most families with children on the spectrum cannot afford these individually designed programs for special needs children. Some school systems are providing money to assist these families however.

Online web classes, both inexpensive and free, are becoming increasingly available. These can be used together with home schooling. For some students, being able to repeat a video, a lecture, or lab online may be a helpful way to learn. This may further attract more people to the academic subgroup needing to go at its own pace, some rapid, some slow. Also, for the subgroup concerned with moral content, courses meeting family values can be chosen and monitored. Harvard University and MIT have announced a partnership to provide free college level web classes. This worldwide sharing of educational information seems to be rapidly growing. I do not see a change in the subgroups interested in home schooling, but I do see an increase in the numbers of people joining these subgroups.


Farris, M. P., & Woodruff, S. A. The Future of Home Schooling. Peabody Journal of Education, 75(1/2), 233-255.  2000.

Gaither, M. Why Homeschooling Happened. Educational Horizons, 86(4), 226-237. 2008.

Gaither, M. Homeschooling in the USA: Past, Present and Future. Theory and Research in Education, 7(3), 331-346. 2009.

Gelbrich, Judy. Education in America, Part I. Colonial America. Oregon State University. 1999.

Klein, Carol, Poplin, Mary. Families Home Schooling in a Virtual Charter School System.  Marriage and Family Review. 43:3-4, 369-395. 2008.

Lyman, Elizabeth  “Homeschooling: Back to the Future” Cato Institute – Cato Policy Analysis No. 924.  January 7, 1998.

Mackey, B. W., Reese, K., & Mackey, W.C. Demographics of Home Schoolers: A Regional Analysis within the National Parameters. Education, 132(1), 133-140. 2011.

Mayberry, Maralee, and Knowles, J. Gary. “Family Unity Objectives of Parents Who Teach Their Children: Ideological and Pedagogical Orientations to Home Schooling.” The Urban Review 21, no. 4: 209–225. 1989.

Rudner, Lawrence M. Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998. Education Policy Analysis Archives, v7 n8. 1999.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the 2003 National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES). 2003.

Warner, Beth, Weist, Mark, Krulak, Amy. Risk Factors for School Violence. Urban Education. 34:52 doi: 10/1177/0042085999341004. 1999.

Winters, Donald K. There’s No Place Like Home: The Modern Home School Movement, 1980-Present. American Educational History Journal, 2001. No. 28.