School Choice & Charters Explainer

Homeschooling: Requirements, Research, and Who Does It

By Arianna Prothero — January 10, 2018 6 min read
From left, Justin Barreras, 10, Adam Barreras, 11, and Garrett Barreras, 8, complete science schoolwork with their mother, Mariel Barreras, before soccer practice in Omaha, Neb. Mariel Barreras, whose husband is in the U.S. Army, is one of a growing number of military parents home schooling their children, in part to bring stability amid frequent relocations and long deployments.

Even as recently as 1980, home schooling was illegal in a majority of states—and didn’t become lawful nationwide until 1993. But once seen as a fringe practice of families on the extreme right and left—religious conservatives and hippies—homeschooling today is viewed as a small, but integral part of the education ecosystem in the United States and a pillar of the school choice movement.

Home schooling has gained wider attention and more-mainstream acceptance as the numbers of students learning at home doubled in the past decade—a trend driven in some measure by the expansion of online schooling options.

How Many Kids Are Homeschooled?

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that about 3.3 percent of the country’s school-aged children are homeschooled. That’s nearly 2 million students.

That said, home schoolers are a notoriously difficult group to count and study. States define and track home-school enrollment differently, if at all. And researchers say survey data are difficult to collect on home schoolers because, as a group, they tend to be more wary of oversight and government infringement.

Furthermore, home schoolers who are enrolled part-time in district or private schools, or full-time in online charter schools, may get double-counted in some states.

But while firm data are hard to come by, experts are confident that home-schooling numbers have surged in the past decade.

However, by 2016, that growth appeared to have stalled, according to survey data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES data on home schoolers is widely considered the most comprehensive available.

Online Homeschool

With the advent of online-course taking and growing school choice options, the boundaries between home schooling and traditional public schooling are becoming more diffuse.

There are full-time virtual or online charter schools where students learn at home from teachers over their computers and parents act more as educational guides, flexible setups where students attend a traditional school part time and home school part time, and education savings account programs, in which some states allow families to use the per-pupil funding allocated to their children on approved home-schooling expenses.

According to the NCES, more than 30 percent of middle and high school home schoolers report taking online courses. Of those, 25 percent took courses through a district school, 22 percent through a charter school, and 21 percent through a private school.

And the number of home schoolers enrolling in virtual charter schools and other forms of online education is only growing, according to research by the Education Commission of the States.

Homeschool Requirements

Requirements and regulations for home schoolers vary greatly from state-to-state, with most taking a decidedly hands-off approach to oversight.

A 2015 report by the Education Commission of the States analyzed state home-school laws. It found:

  • Twenty states require some form of academic assessment;
  • Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia mandate that home schoolers learn certain subjects;
  • Twenty-three states plus D.C. have attendance requirements;
  • Thirteen states plus D.C. require home-schooling parents or instructors to have certain qualifications—most require at minimum a high school diploma;
  • Almost 40 states plus D.C. require parents to tell the state or their local school district if they plan to home school a child; and
  • Twenty-six states allow home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities or attend their local district schools part-time.

Three states—Alaska, Idaho, and Michigan—put the fewest restrictions on home-schooling families, while three others—Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania—have the most regulations, according to the ECS report.

The lack of regulations in most states fuels much of the debate around home schooling.

School district officials and some homeschooling activists say that without testing requirements and other forms of oversight, it’s impossible to ensure that home-schooled students are receiving a quality education and the skills necessary to transition successfully into the workforce or higher education. And in some extreme cases, home schooling has been used by parents and guardians to hide physical abuse of children.

But some home schoolers, most prominently the largest and most-organized group, the Home School Legal Defense Association, have pushed back vigorously against regulation efforts, arguing that what might appear to be a single, benign law will lead to government overreach.

Home School vs. Public School

How home-schooled students compare academically to their counterparts in public and private schools is anyone’s guess.

It’s extremely difficult to pin down academic achievement data on home schoolers, leaving most people with little more than stereotypes of home schoolers dominating spelling bees to go on.

Of the research that does exist, almost all of it is qualitative and much of it is politically motivated, according to a review of more than 1,400 academic texts by researchers at Indiana University and Messiah College (a private Christian College in Pennsylvania). The same goes for high-school graduation and college matriculation rates for homeschoolers. But once in college, homeschoolers—or at least those who go on to pursue a post-secondary education—become much easier to study. That research has largely found there is no meaningful difference between homeschoolers and their more traditionally educated peers in academic achievement or the social and emotional transition into college.

In terms of the general public’s attitudes toward home schooling, many Americans support it or have no opinion on it. A recent survey by Stanford University found that 45 percent of Americans support home schooling, while 34 percent expressly oppose it.

Who Homeschools?

Home schoolers run the gamut from conservative Christians to secular “unschoolers,” who believe in putting all children in charge of their own learning. The typical home-schooler profile, however, is a white, suburban student from a family that lives above the federal poverty line.

More specifically, 60 percent of home schoolers are white, 39 percent live in suburbs, 29 percent in cities, 22 percent in rural areas, and 10 percent in towns, according to the NCES.

Eight in 10 home schoolers live in households with incomes above the poverty line.

What unites home-schooling families is not so much their demographics, but their motivations.

A large majority of home schooling parents report that they chose to home school their children because of concerns over the environment in their original schools. Ninety-one percent told the NCES that factors such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure helped drive them to home school their children.

There’s anecdotal evidence that concerns over bias and bullying in traditional schools are driving more black families, Muslim families, and families with LGBTQ children to home school, and that, in turn, is fueling a rise in diversity among the home schooling population.

Home schooling is also gaining popularity with military families who frequently move.

And there are also reports—although no firm data—that some families more recently are opting to home school to avoid vaccinating their children or exposing them to curricula tied to the Common Core State Standards.

However, the most vocal, visible, and organized home schoolers remain those who are religiously motivated, most often conservative Christians.

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