South Dakota epitomizes the rapid growth of homeschooling in America. Guided by the principle that parents, not the government, have the right to determine what and how their kids are taught, homeschooling families have overturned existing rules and batted down attempts over the last decade to impose new ones in many states, including South Dakota.
What’s left in much of the United States today is essentially an honor system in which parents are expected to do a good job without much input or oversight. The rollback of regulations, coupled with the ill effects of remote learning during the pandemic, have boosted the number of families opting out of public schools in favor of educating their kids at home.
Reflecting a national trend, the number of children homeschooled in South Dakota rose more than 20% in both of the last two school years.
Homeschoolers in the Mount Rushmore state advocated for a new law that strips away key pieces of the state’s oversight and eases the way for parents leave public schools. Last year Senate Bill 177 ended the requirement that parents provide annual notice to a district of their intent to homeschool their child. More significantly, homeschool students no longer must take standardized tests, as public schoolers do, or face possible intervention by the school board if they fail.
“It was a big win for parental rights,” says Dan Beasley, then a staff attorney at the influential Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which helped craft and pass the legislation. “It cut out unnecessary regulation and streamlined the process so parents can invest their time in providing the best education they can for their children.”
This freedom stands in contrast to outraged parents who feel powerless over how their kids are taught in public schools. In high-pitched battles at school board meetings, some take aim at the easing of admissions standards, others at what they see as the promotion of critical race theory and transgender rights, and still others at segregated classrooms and the presence of police officers on campus. And almost everyone is concerned with the sharp decline in already low reading and math scores of students in nearly every state during the pandemic, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress released in late October.
For a growing number of parents, homeschooling is the answer to the institutional barriers to the education they believe in. Beyond requirements that homeschooling parents teach a few core subjects like math and English, they are free to pick the content.
American history, for example, can be all about the glory of the Founding Fathers and the prosperity of free markets, or the oppression of Native Americans and people of color and the struggle for equality. For many homeschoolers, history is taught through a Christian lens, while others follow a standard public school curriculum.
Parents’ Rights vs. State Control
The push to deregulate homeschooling raises difficult questions about how to balance the rights of parents to educate children as they see fit with the responsibility of the state to provide educational opportunity – and protect kids when things go wrong. While U.S. courts have stood behind parental rights, with the caveat that states have the authority to impose reasonable regulations to ensure students are educated, European countries lean the other way. To safeguard children, they have imposed much more stringent oversight of home schools.
Cases of child abuse and academic neglect in home schools are a real concern, especially as the guardrails are removed. Most cases of mistreatment are discovered and reported by teachers in public schools, a protection that doesn’t help homeschooled children. Homeschool alumni at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) and academic researchers have documented hundreds of examples of harm to children, many leading to criminal charges, ranging from fatalities and sexual abuse to poor instruction from parents who can’t or don’t teach.
But calls by CRHE and others for more protections don’t get much traction in the United States. In March, after Maryland lawmaker Sheila Ruth introduced a bill to create a homeschool advisory council to collect information from homeschooling parents and advise state officials, she was inundated with calls and emails. A few were so nasty and threatening that her office called the police. In a Facebook post, Ruth promised the homeschool advocates that she would let the bill die and pleaded with them to stand down.
Virginia-based HSLDA has spearheaded the opposition to regulations in court and legislative chambers, often in collaboration with local organizations. The group helped defeat many requirements, including that families provide notification of their intent to homeschool in Illinois, that students take standardized tests in South Carolina, and that home schools submit to visits to ensure the safety of children after one starved to death in Iowa, according to an Arizona Law Review article by Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard Law emeritus professor.
“There is a significant segment of homeschooled children who are at serious risk for maltreatment,” Bartholet says. “And no homeschooled children have safeguards to protect them since they are not seen by teachers. That seems deeply wrong to me.”
Homeschool advocates don’t face much political opposition, at least not yet. That may soon change. Teachers’ unions, for one, have an obvious motivation to become adversarial: School districts have been losing students, and thus funding, at historic rates during the pandemic, and some of those kids are going to home schools.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest professional union, issued a resolution in 2021 essentially opposing homeschooling. It said home schools “cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience” and called for regulations that force them to basically duplicate public schooling at home. Other than that, NEA has been curiously silent about homeschooling and isn’t seen as much of an opponent by HSLDA.
“HSLDA has been enormously influential,” says Robert Kunzman, an authority on homeschooling at Indiana University. “They have been able to mobilize a lot of legal resources and grassroots organizations to push back on regulations.”
A Wide Spectrum of Rules
Just a handful of states, like Colorado and New York, have maintained a comprehensive set of rules, according to CRHE. These states require the teaching of a full list of subjects without dictating the actual content of courses. They also mandate the total annual hours of instruction and formal assessments like standardized tests in an effort to make home schools accountable. In New York, districts can intervene, with the threat of putting the home school on probation, if the student performs poorly.
Most states, such as Texas and Idaho, are much more laissez-faire. They require a short list of subjects be taught but no assessments. Texas is also among a dozen states where parents don’t have to tell the school district that they are homeschooling.
In half a dozen states, like Mississippi and Utah, there are no subject, time, or assessment requirements, according to CRHE. Parents are completely free to do as they wish.
As states have eased requirements for parents, the number of homeschooled students has expanded significantly, from an estimated 850,000 in 1999 to about 1.7 million in 2016, or about 3.3% of the school-age population, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. While experts agree that homeschooling grew quickly during the pandemic and will probably continue to do so but at a slower pace, there is no reliable national data, with some estimates that exceed 3 million students in 2021 considered to be inflated.
Homeschooling took off in the 1960s, fueled by religion and ideology. Christian conservatives wanted to imbue their children with religious doctrine away from the temptations of public schools, and progressive anti-institutionalists sought to nurture the kind of free thinking in their offspring that rote education stifled.
In recent years a more diverse group of families, including a notable percentage of black parents, have turned to homeschooling for more practical concerns: to escape poor performing public schools, unsafe campuses, bullying, progressive ideology, and racism.
At the same time, public schools, aiming to retain at least a limited grip on homeschooled students, are increasingly supporting them with everything from art and music classes to athletics and online education tools. What has emerged is a hybrid model in which students toggle back and forth between home and public schools. For instance, some students start their education at home and then enter public schools in their mid-teens to take more advanced classes that parents can’t teach.
Whatever the motive for homeschooling, deregulation has made it a much easier choice for parents.
“The movement to reduce regulatory barriers has definitely opened up homeschooling to growth for people from all socio-economic walks of life,” says Brian Ray, co-founder of the National Home Education Research Institute and a longtime advocate. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
A Success Story in Missouri
In Missouri, Kim Quon had only a few rules to abide by when she decided to homeschool her two kids so they could learn about Christian faith from her point of view. In her in St. Louis County home, she had to provide 1,000 hours of instruction a year, with 600 of those hours in key subjects like math and English, and keep a written log of the work completed, according to the state’s homeschool law.
Otherwise, Missouri, like most states, takes a mostly hands-off approach. It doesn’t test the students and has no way of knowing if parents are doing a bad job of teaching them unless a report of educational neglect is filed, in which case the Department of Social Services may investigate. A spokesperson declined to say whether educational neglect is a concern in Missouri and said the department doesn’t release data on the number of complaints it receives.
“There have been claims of educational neglect, but the vast majority are not legit,” Quon says. “Most homeschool parents take their job very seriously.”
Quon certainly did. After finishing the required classes, her children had a lot of time left in the day to explore their own interests, which is one of the biggest benefits of homeschooling. The enormous workload of educating two children was made easier for Quon by relying on curricula created by homeschool groups, online resources, and community college for advanced math classes.
“I’m not a college graduate,” Quon says. “So you don’t have to be a brainy person to homeschool your kids because there are so many resources and people available to help.”
Homeschooling prepared both of her children for college. They went to the University of Missouri in St. Louis and did well, like most homeschoolers who seek post-secondary degrees. Her son studied anthropology and works at the Heritage Museum in St. Charles County. Her daughter earned a degree in biology and works at the St. Louis Aquarium.
After homeschooling her kids, Quon was recruited by Families for Home Education, a statewide advocacy group, to direct its operation in the greater St. Louis region. While FHE has 1,200 members, its network of 10,000 to 20,000 supporters has been quickly mobilized to bombard lawmakers with calls and emails to defeat attempts to place additional rules on homeschooling that were first established in Missouri in the mid-1980s. There are grassroots groups like FHE in every state.
FHE has successfully opposed proposals to make students start school at age five rather than the current seven. The group is now struggling to change a Missouri scholarship program that would force homeschooled students to take standardized tests and allow a review of their educational records, which FHE considers an unnecessary government intrusion.
“Lawmakers pretty much leave us alone,” Quon says. “I would like to think it’s because of our presence as a lobbyist, and that we built those relationships over the years.”
Quon’s dedication is common among homeschoolers, but what’s less understood is the extent of educational neglect since most states don’t collect assessment results. From his perch at Indiana University, Robert Kunzman has an anecdotal view of the problem after spending hundreds of hours with dozens of families in many states observing their homeschooling practices.
The professor has been impressed with some home instruction – highly structured and directed lessons as well as those allowing exploration and creativity – but he has also witnessed serious problems: families who focus almost exclusively on a small subset of subjects they are comfortable with; a teenager who still counts on his fingers to do math; a mom who doesn’t know how to help her daughter sound out words, creating much frustration between them; and a parent who considers an episode of Little House on the Prairie to be a history lesson.
“These are the kinds of things that are certainly going on,” says Kunzman, who wrote a book on Christian homeschooling. “It’s a small percentage of homeschoolers, perhaps less than a quarter, in which children’s educational interests are being profoundly neglected.”
Homeschool advocates tend to dismiss this concern. While a small number of parents may not do a good job educating their children, Quon says, the same can be said of teachers in public schools, where many students graduate with skills far behind what’s expected of a 12th grader, or drop out.
Brian Ray, the influential researcher embraced by the homeschool movement, also says he isn’t too worried about educational neglect. A Ph.D. in science education and the father of eight homeschooled children, Ray points his and other studies purporting to show that homeschoolers significantly outperform public school students on standardized tests. In his view, the research supports his position that government oversight of homeschooling is unnecessary.
But Kunzman and other scholars have criticized the papers as advocacy masquerading as research. They point out that some of the studies have been designed and funded by HSLDA and say that they have methodological limitations.
In Ray’s 2010 national study of achievement on standardized tests, for instance, homeschoolers who volunteered scored in the 86th percentile, well above the 50th percentile national mean.
But the homeschoolers in this study, and in others like it, were an unrepresentative and privileged group: almost entirely white (97%) and raised by married parents (98%) with college degrees (64%). These traits are strongly associated with high academic achievement and don’t reflect the much more diverse and less educated population of public school parents.
Ray waves off this issue, saying these traits don’t have much of an impact on home school performance, but researchers still question his results.
“The idea that homeschool students do better on standardized tests has been repeated so many times by advocates and the media that legislators take it at face value and it is now accepted common knowledge,” says Kunzman, who cofounded the International Center for Home Education Research to support non-biased studies.
Calls for Regulation
CRHE and Harvard’s Bartholet don’t buy Ray’s findings. They are advocating for what they consider reasonable protections for children. They say parents need to tell districts if they are homeschooling each year; they should cover the same subjects as public schools; and students should be assessed to make sure they are making progress.
“We get messages every week from people around the country who know a homeschool child who is being educationally neglected,” says Chelsea McCracken, CRHE’s research director. “Where there is no annual notification, subject requirements, and assessments, there is no way for states to ensure that children’s rights are protected.”
Kunzman sees such reforms as politically untenable. He advocates for a more modest approach: Require homeschoolers to take a basic skills test in literacy and numeracy. That’s it. The proposal might face less resistance since parents generally share a common belief that, despite religious and political differences, every child should learn how to read and do some math. Kunzman’s test would identify the students who are not learning so they could get some help.
Ray thinks all the proposals for regulation are nonsense. Just look at public schools. “For many decades public schools have had regulations including certified teachers and testing,” Ray says. “And we have children who are illiterate and can’t do basic math. All the testing schools do every year doesn’t guarantee anything.”
But Ray and Kunzman do agree on one thing – homeschooling will continue to expand.