School Choice & Charters

Study Estimates 850,000 U.S. Children Schooled at Home

By Catherine Gewertz — August 08, 2001 4 min read
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In the federal government’s most comprehensive study to date of the nation’s home-schooling population, a survey released last week shows that 850,000 children—1.7 percent of the school-age population—are being taught primarily at home.

Since the number of home schoolers has been growing, even more children could be studying at home now than were indicated in the survey, which was conducted in the late winter and spring of 1999 by the National Center for Education Statistics.

For More Information

The report, “Home Schooling in the United States: 1999,” is available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The study also found that home-schooled children are more likely than their traditionally schooled peers to be non-Hispanic whites, and that they have parents who have achieved higher levels of education.

The researchers attempt to paint the most authoritative portrait yet of the home schooling by the study’s sheer scope—it was based on interviews with 57,300 households—and broad- based sampling methods, which counted children as home-schooled even if they attended school part time.

Stephen P. Broughman, a study co-author, said the report by the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education represents the government’s most confident conclusions so far on the home-schooling world. Studies in 1994 and 1996 that showed a much smaller home-schooled population, he said, were constructed such that they produced questionable results. The 1999 survey was refined and broadened.

“These are the first numbers we’re really standing behind,” Mr. Broughman said.

For those who study home schooling as a movement, the report contains few surprises, serving largely to confirm much of what such experts already knew about the profile of home- schooling families.

“This study gives us a picture of home schooling as appealing to a broad constituency,” said Mitchell Stevens, an assistant professor of sociology at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., whose book chronicling the home-schooling movement is due out this fall. “It suggests that by 1999, we had a movement that had come of age. It’s a testament to the growing viability of home schooling as a practice. It’s not just for fundamentalist Christians anymore.”

The home-schooled population has been famously difficult to document, because of design flaws in such studies, families’ philosophical reluctance to cooperate with surveys, and governments’ inconsistent tracking. Some studies of home schoolers have put their numbers over 1 million. The NCES authors acknowledge that using a survey similar to theirs, with a slightly different sample, could produce numbers as low as 709,000 and as high as 992,000.

Some advocates questioned the newest numbers. Scott W. Somerville, a staff lawyer with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., said the findings might have overlooked the many home schoolers whose parents would not answer a survey for philosophical reasons. Also uncounted, he said, would be thousands of home-schooling families who, because of their states’ restrictions, operate as “private schools,” and would describe their arrangements that way if asked.

Painting a Picture

The picture that emerges from the federal study of home schoolers shows a similar distribution of boys and girls and of family-income level as those in brick-and-mortar schools.

Differences in the two populations showed up in other ways. In race, 75 percent of home schoolers were non-Hispanic whites, compared with 65 percent of students in regular schools. Far more home-schooled children in the study were from families of three or more children (62 percent) than were those in public or private school (44 percent).

Home-schooled children also were more likely to be from two-parent families (80 percent) than were those in school (66 percent). More than half the home schoolers had one parent at home and one working outside the home, a situation that held true for fewer than one-fifth of families of children attending school.

Educational achievement differed markedly between families who home school and those whose children attend schools. A quarter of parents with home-schooled children had earned bachelor’s degrees, compared with 16 percent of those whose children attended schools.

In detailing the reasons parents gave for home schooling their children, the NCES study challenges the view that the drive to home school is primarily religious. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one reason. Nearly half the parents cited a desire to provide a better-quality education as one motivation for home schooling. Thirty-eight percent cited religious reasons, and one-quarter cited poor learning environments in their local schools.

Another aspect of the report examines home-schooling parents’ use of services offered by their local public schools. The study found only small percentages of home-schooled children enrolled in classes or using school services. Only small minorities of parents reported that their local schools offered extracurricular activities, curriculum support, and the chance to attend classes.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study Estimates 850,000 U.S. Children Schooled at Home

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