School Choice & Charters

Home School Enrollment Surge Fuels ‘Cottage’ Industry

By Mark Walsh — June 05, 2002 7 min read
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Elizabeth Shultz remembers the challenge she faced when she began teaching her oldest son at home five years ago. The neophyte instructor was confronted by a bewildering array of packaged curricula and other educational products geared to the home schooling market.

“I was quite overwhelmed,” the Alexandria, Va., mother said last week. “I wanted to buy everything because I wanted to be the perfect home school mom.”

But Ms. Shultz was also on a tight budget, and she ended up patching together an assortment of learning materials for several years. Before this school year, though, with her sons in 1st and 4th grades, she was ready to turn to a more sophisticated curriculum package. After shopping around online, she settled on $300-per-student learning materials from Core Curriculum of America of North Port, Fla.

“I looked at a lot of the different providers, but this company did phone interviews and customized the curriculum for both of my sons,” Ms. Shultz said.

Core Curriculum is one of hundreds of educational providers that primarily target home schooling families. It is a market that appears to be growing as fast as the ranks of home schoolers themselves. The U.S. Department of Education reported last year that there were 850,000 home-schooled children nationwide, based on a 1999 survey. Many observers of home schooling contend the number is higher—at least 1 million, and possibly more—and definitely growing.

Curriculum Boxes

Another common estimate is that home schooling parents spend about $700 million a year on instructional materials such as books, maps, and science equipment.

“It does seem that a larger percentage of people coming into home schooling today are looking for these kinds of resources,” said Linda Dobson, an author and a spokeswoman for the National Home Education Network.

Jean C. Halle, the chief executive officer of Calvert School Education Services, which has been providing curriculum materials for home schools since 1906, has crunched the numbers and believes the $700 million figure is about right.

“About 40 percent to 50 percent of home schooling families spend $400 or less per year,” she said. “But the flip side is that some parents are spending $400 to as much as $1,200 per student on curriculum materials.”

Calvert’s curriculum stems from the independent Calvert School in Baltimore, which began selling its lessons to missionaries and other families early in the 20th century. The nonprofit institution, with its secular curriculum, dominated the market until the 1960’s, when Christian publishers came along to serve the explosion of home schooling families motivated primarily by religion, Ms. Halle said.

Last year, Calvert shipped more than 28,000 curriculum boxes to home schooling families. The boxes include a year’s curriculum for each child as well as crayons, pencils, and other materials. The typical cost is about $500 a child per year.

Calvert sells its mathematics curriculum separately, but otherwise its offerings are sold as a grade-by-grade block. About 92 percent are shipped within the United States, with the rest going to other countries.

The market for religious home school curricula has many entrants, but among the bigger ones are A Beka Books, Alpha Omega Publications Inc., and Bob Jones University Press, which is affiliated with the Christian university in Greenville, S.C.

A Beka, based in Pensacola, Fla., is 25 years old and sells Bible-themed textbooks across the curriculum.

“We have over 100,000 home-schooled pupils using our books,” said Eric Fears, the sales manager for the company. A Beka holds what its calls “motel meetings” at Holiday Inns and other lodgings where home schooling families can come peruse the books and place orders.

Many curriculum providers also offer testing and recordkeeping services to families, at an additional fee. Calvert offers its Advisory Teaching Service, which allows home schooling students to call an experienced classroom teacher for help and for testing. That costs about $300 per year above the price of the curriculum.

Some parents object to a regimented curriculum, arguing that such offerings serve to defeat a major purpose of home schooling: to let their children learn at their own pace. A whole segment of home schoolers often refer to themselves as “unschoolers” because they don’t want the traditional curricular path for their children. But even many unschoolers spend a good amount of money on learning materials.

“There was no way I could go purchase a 3rd grade curriculum for my child,” said Lorraine Snowberger, a Germantown, Md., mother who teaches her son and daughter at home. Her son might be above grade level in math but at or behind grade level in reading, she said.

“That’s why I have never purchased an entire line from one publisher,” she said. “But I have purchased many pieces from many different publishers.”

Besides curriculum providers, hundreds of other businesses are geared toward home schooling families. They include magazines, specialty products, and catalogs. Some are small businesses run by home schooling families.

Home Diplomas

When the Home Educators Association of Virginia holds its graduation ceremony in Richmond on June 15, some of the graduates will be wearing class rings from Lord’s Fine Jewelry, a Piedmont, Okla., family business that sells customized rings only for students in home and Christian schools.

Meanwhile, Milligan’s, a graduation supply company based in Brewton, Ala., specializes in selling diplomas and caps and gowns for home school graduation ceremonies.

“Our business has increased dramatically in the past few years because more people are home schooling,” said Pam Ezell, a manager at the company. She said the diplomas typically list the student as graduating from a school named after the family: “Smith Home School,” for example.

One of the newest twists on the business side of home schooling also has the potential to be one of the largest. K12 Inc., the online school and curriculum company launched last year by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, sees home schooling families as one of its logical markets. The McLean, Va.-based start-up offers a “classical” curriculum, currently for children in grades K-2. But the company plans to expand its offerings annually.

While the online school has enrolled several thousand home-schooled students, its evolution shows that education-related businesses are not necessarily tied to their original business plans, and that the worlds of home schooling and more traditional schools may be closer than their images suggest.

K12 is also aggressively pursuing business opportunities in “cyber charters.” Calvert School, meanwhile, last year changed the name of its Home Instruction Department to Education Services, reflecting the fact that it also provides the curriculum for a number of charter schools and traditional public schools. In fact, 20 percent of its courses this year went to clients other than home schooling families, and the proportion is growing, Ms. Halle said.

Calvert and other providers stand to benefit greatly if rules continue to loosen, as they have in a handful of places, allowing home-schooled students to register in traditional districts and then have the district order the home school curriculum.

“If we can work with the system, schools would still get their per-pupil funding, and families would still get the option of home schooling,” Ms. Halle said. But most of the public school system is still not inclined to handle home schooling that way.

Targeting Mom

Core Curriculum, the Florida company providing Ms. Shultz’s materials, has also begun offering its materials to charter schools. The company started as a family business in 1989, but last year reached $1 million in revenues, said Craig Brown, the operations manager. It is doing most of its business over the Internet, he added.

“Our primary market is the new home schooling mom,” Mr. Brown said. “They are wondering whether they are qualified to teach their children at home. And they ask, ‘Where am I going to get it?’”

Core Curriculum offers both Christian and secular curricula, which is unusual in the market. It uses its interviews with parents—typically mothers, the company says—to develop a customized package from its pool of more than 300 traditional educational publishers.

“There are more and more home schoolers coming online every day, and they are going to need a curriculum,” Mr. Brown said.

Funding for the Business page was provided in part by the Ford Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as Home School Enrollment Surge Fuels ‘Cottage’ Industry

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