Homeschooling refers to the practice of educating children at home rather than sending them to a public or private school. While children have always obtained at least some of their education at home, since the 1960s a growing number of US parents have chosen to forego sending their children to formal school systems to teach them at home. According to a 2019 report released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly 1.7 million US students (3.3 percent) ages five through seventeen were homeschooled in 2016. This percentage represents only a small part of the population but marks an increase of about 60 percent since 2003.
Obtaining reliable national data on homeschooling can be challenging, however, as each state has its own laws regarding parental autonomy and reporting requirements. According to surveys conducted by NCES, parents’ reasons to homeschool include the desire to provide religious or moral instruction; concerns about school environments, including safety, drugs, and peer pressure; dissatisfaction with academic instruction; preference of a nontraditional approach to education; and providing for a child’s special needs or disability.
Advocates of homeschooling believe parents are better equipped than schools to create learning environments suited to students’ individual needs. These advocates contend that homeschooled students benefit from an education that allows them to learn from experience, interact with people of all ages, and obtain practical skills like budgeting. Supporters of homeschooling also frequently cite studies that suggest homeschooled students perform better on standardized tests than students enrolled in traditional schools.
Critics of homeschooling, however, contend that most parents do not have the training and skills to teach as well as certified educators. Many students report that homeschooling prepared them well for work and further education, while others report negative experiences such as social isolation, gaps in learning, and limited exposure to opposing points of view. In some cases, homeschooling has provided cover for child abuse, as it enables abusive parents to restrict and limit their children’s contact with neighbors and state authorities.
History of Homeschooling
Massachusetts imposed the first compulsory education law in the United States in 1852. By 1918 every other state had enacted laws requiring children of certain ages to attend school for a minimum amount of time each year. By the 1960s, the public education system had replaced home-based education almost entirely. Criticisms lobbed against public education focused on issues of parental control, religious freedom, and child development. Evangelical Christians worried that schools taught material that contradicted the teachings of the Bible. In 1962 the US Supreme Court appeared to confirm their fears by ruling state-sponsored school prayer unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale.
Religious objections to compulsory education were deemed constitutionally valid through the Supreme Court’s decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). The case involved Old Order Amish individuals who objected to sending their children to high school, contending that further education conflicted with their religious beliefs. The court ruled in their favor, asserting that freedom of religion outweighed the state’s interest in public education. The Supreme Court’s rulings on religious freedom, however, do not prevent the government from intervening in cases of religious practices—including homeschooling—where the physical and mental health of the children are threatened.
As the religious homeschooling movement began to grow, other families pursued homeschooling in response to emerging theories that formal education could be detrimental to child development. In the 1970s education reformer John Holt argued that competitive environments can have lasting negative effects on children and advocated more student- or self-directed learning, which he called unschooling. Many proponents of homeschooling did not dismiss formal schooling entirely but urged parents to delay sending children to school—ideas that continue to be promoted within the homeschooling community.
In the twenty-first century, concerns over safety emerged as driving some parents’ choices to homeschool. Following highly publicized incidents of school violence such as the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in 2018, some advocacy groups reported increases in inquiries from parents curious about homeschooling their children. Similarly, concerns over racially motivated bullying and a desire to minimize children’s early exposure to racism was linked to a sharp increase in homeschooling among African American families in the 2010s. These families cite frustration with culturally incompetent curricula and educators unprepared to meet the needs of African American students.
Furthermore, some parents have suggested homeschooling as a way to prevent their children from entering the school-to-prison pipeline, a metaphor used to describe the link between strict school discipline practices and the mass incarceration of people of color, particularly black men, in the United States.
Changing Legislation of Homeschooling
Laws regarding compulsory attendance and homeschooling vary from state to state. Several northeastern states, including Massachusetts and New York, require homeschooled students to undergo thorough skill and knowledge assessments through standardized tests or other review. Other states require similar assessments but offer waivers if the parents meet certain criteria. Still other states leave the decision for assessing homeschoolers’ academic progress to local school officials.
Although most states do not establish any qualifications for parents to homeschool their children, some do require parents, especially those of children with disabilities, to meet educational minimums. In contrast, eleven states, including Texas and Indiana, do not require parents to notify the local or state government when choosing to homeschool their children.
Child welfare activists have advocated all states to adopt legislation requiring at least a one-time notification that a child is being homeschooled. These activists contend that the lack of state supervision enables child abuse to go undetected, as evidenced by a series of cases where authorities discovered children chained, malnourished, sexually abused, or sold to human traffickers. Two parents in Denver, Colorado, for example, may have used homeschooling to hide the death of their seven-year-old son, Caden McWilliams, for nearly seven months. Authorities believe the child was already deceased in August 2018 when his school was notified that he would be homeschooled for the 2018–2019 school year.
Cases like that of Caden McWilliams have spurred some states to revisit their laws regarding homeschooling. In 2019 the state of Georgia passed and enacted H.B. 530, a law intended to prevent parents from removing a child from school for the purposes of evading detection of child abuse. Under the new law, homeschooling parents and guardians in Georgia are required to submit home-study plans annually.
Further, if a child is absent from school for forty-five days and has no home-study plan on file, the school is required to refer the case to the Department of Family and Children Services for assessment. The homeschooling community is divided on the issue of increased monitoring. Organizations like the Center for Home Education Policy, established by homeschool graduates, support such legislation because it is aimed at protecting children, while those like the Home School Legal Defense Association oppose such legislation because, they argue, it threatens parental autonomy.
Another issue that divides the homeschooling community is the prospect of homeschooling families receiving financial support from the state in the form of vouchers, grants, or tax credits. The government spends thousands of dollars annually on each student in public school. This per-student expenditure, which the NCES estimated at $13,440 for the 2019–2020 school year, includes tax dollars collected from homeschooling families who, some contend, receive no benefit. Thus, advocates of allocating government funds to homeschooling families can argue that students attending public school are given an unfair advantage. Some homeschooling parents, however, oppose receiving government funds because they anticipate that increased state oversight would be a condition of accepting such funds.
Benefits of Homeschooling
Families provide many reasons for homeschooling. According to the NCES in 2016, 80 percent of parents who chose to homeschool their children cited a concern about the school environment as an important factor in their decision, with 34 percent citing the school environment as the most important factor. These concerns related to negative peer pressure, safety, and exposure to drugs, drinking, and other destructive behaviors. Other highly cited reasons included a desire to provide students with religious or moral instruction and a dissatisfaction with the quality of the school’s academics. Parents of children with disabilities may choose homeschooling when they believe traditional schools cannot provide the support their child needs.
While several studies have suggested that homeschooled students perform better academically than their public-school counterparts, critics have concluded that flaws in methodology make such assertions questionable. These critics, which include many homeschooling advocates, underscore that the problems identified do not mean that homeschooling cannot or does not improve academic performance. The positive effects that lesson personalization and one-on-one instruction are believed to have on public school students, for instance, suggest that the level of personal attention present in homeschooling may improve academic performance.
Many criticisms of homeschooling challenge the quality of instruction and socialization homeschooled students receive. Some homeschooling critics worry that parents cannot provide the breadth or depth of instruction that trained and experienced educators can, while others are concerned that common homeschool curricula may be inaccurate and, in many states, do not need to meet any standards for learning, unlike curricula taught in public schools.
Religious homeschoolers often learn using textbooks created by a small number of publishers that do not undergo independent academic review. Textbooks from Bob Jones University, Apologia Educational Ministries, Abeka, and Accelerated Christian Education, four popular publishers in religious education, have drawn attention from critics for promoting historical falsehoods, encouraging scientific denialism, and fostering unwarranted biases against entire groups of people. Opponents of homeschooling complain that lack of regulation and oversight weakens the educational value of homeschooling when it does not prepare the students to contribute to society. Homeschooling advocacy groups, however, have sustained effective campaigns against any attempt to regulate homeschooling.
Proponents of homeschooling often respond to the contention that homeschooled children do not receive enough opportunities to socialize by arguing that public school does not itself cultivate socialization. Advocates argue that students in traditional school settings are discouraged from speaking in class and often admonished with the directive that they are in school to learn, not to socialize.
Additionally, communities where many families have chosen to homeschool often form cooperatives that allow the students and parents to socialize through arts, sports, community service, or academics. Homeschooling advocates contend that students have opportunities to socialize at family gatherings, community programs, and religious events. Furthermore, more than half of all states have passed legislation to allow homeschooled students to participate in high school sports and other extracurricular activities. However, some public school students and their parents object to allowing homeschooled students to participate in such activities because homeschooled students do not have to adhere to the same eligibility criteria as public school students.