Education Opinion

Why Are We So Fascinated with Homeschooling?

By Sara Mead — February 21, 2012 3 min read
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Homeschooling is hot these days, at least if you judge by the media coverage:

  • Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s recent remarks on public education have drawn attention to home-schooling, which is a choice the Santorum family has made in educating their children.*
  • Last week my colleague Andrew Rotherham wrote about the debate over allowing home-school students to play on public school athletic teams, as well as some other thorny debates related to homeschooling quality, regulation, and access to publicly funded services.
  • My friend Dana Goldstein’s article challenging the idea of “progressive” homeschooling--itself a response to numerous recent articles highlighting liberal, new-agey, and/or urban homeschoolers--was one of the most read pieces on Slate last week.

It’s understandable why homeschooling draws such attention. Child-parent relationships are some of the most deeply held and sacred human bonds, and debates around homeschooling raise complicated questions about the relationship among parents, children, and the state, and the relative roles and responsibilities of parents and society at large in protecting children from harm and ensuring they grown into adults who can live responsible and productive lives--not to mention what that even means.

More mundanely, homeschooling draws attention because it’s far outside most readers’ experiences--either as parents or as children (more than 95 percent of children today are not homeschooled). As a result stories about homeschooling have, for many readers, the same exotic appeal as reading about the Duchess of Cambridge or people who live in houses made out of shipping containers--not to mention (to judge by the comment threads) the same opportunity to judge other people’s choices that seems to be central to the appeal of most contemporary magazine or blog articles about parenting issues. But these impulses don’t necessarily lead to smart thinking.

It’s particularly interesting for me to watch debates about homeschooling as someone who does a lot of work on early childhood education issues: Conversations about K-12 students often assume that being in public school is the norm and people who school their children at home are unusual. But in early childhood, our debates often proceed as if the norm were for children to be at home with their mothers and child care was the exception--even though we know that more than half of mothers of children under age 5 are working, and nearly two-thirds of children under age 5 are in some kind of regular child care arrangement. Knowing that many parents of young children struggle desperately to cobble together minimally acceptable custodial care arrangements for their children before they are old enough to go to school, and are relieved when children reach kindergarten or first grade and public schools become a reliable source of child care, the ability of some families to keep one parent at home to educate children after they reach school age can look like a luxury--even if it’s one that many families sacrifice mightily to provide.

Often these conversations seem to be lacking in hard data as opposed to anecdote.For all the recent attention to the growth in “progressive” and “secular” homeschooling, data from NCES seems to suggest that most parents are choosing to homeschool at least in part for religious reasons--and that the share of parents who choose to homeschool for religious reasons has actually increased in the past decade: In 2003, 72 percent of homeschool parents reported that they homeschooled to provide religious and moral instruciton; in 2007, 83 percent did so. Similarly, we have very little information about the percentage of families who might be interested in homeschooling their children if barriers--whether regulatory, financial, or logistical--were removed. Homeschool advocacy groups have fought to oppose any regulation or data collection on homeschooling and homeschool families--but the resulting limited data actually makes it impossible to have intelligent conversations that aren’t driven too much by anecdote.

*It’s not entirely clear that it’s a great idea for Santorum to talk much about home-schooling his kids, given that this story doesn’t reflect all that well on the family.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.