Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Home schooling’s rise from fringe to fastest-growing form of education

By Peter Jamison,Laura Meckler,Prayag Gordy,Clara Ence Morse and Chris Alcantara Washington Post

Home schooling has become - by a wide margin - America’s fastest-growing form of education, as families from Upper Manhattan to Eastern Kentucky embrace a largely unregulated practice once confined to the ideological fringe, a Washington Post analysis shows.

The analysis - based on data The Post collected for thousands of school districts across the country - reveals that a dramatic rise in home schooling at the onset of the pandemic has largely sustained itself through the 2022-23 academic year, defying predictions that most families would return to schools that have dispensed with mask mandates and other covid-19 restrictions.

The growth demonstrates home schooling’s arrival as a mainstay of the American educational system, with its impact - on society, on public schools and, above all, on hundreds of thousands of children now learning outside a conventional academic setting - only beginning to be felt.

Obtaining accurate information about the home-schooling population in the United States is challenging. In 11 states, including Texas, Michigan, Connecticut and Illinois, officials do not require notification when families decide to educate their children at home or monitor how those students are faring. Seven additional states have unreliable tallies of home-schooled kids, The Post found.

The Post was able to collect reliable data from 32 states and the District of Columbia, representing more than 60 percent of the country’s school-age population. In 18 of those states, private and public school enrollment figures were available for comparison.

The resulting analysis - which includes home-school registration figures for nearly 7,000 individual school districts - is the most detailed look to date at an unprecedented period of growth in American home schooling.

Examination of the data reveals:

- In states with comparable enrollment figures, the number of home-schooled students increased 51 percent over the past six school years, far outpacing the 7 percent growth in private school enrollment. Public school enrollment dropped 4 percent in those states over the same period, a decline partly attributable to home schooling.

- Home schooling’s surging popularity crosses every measurable line of politics, geography and demographics. The number of home-schooled kids has increased 373 percent over the past six years in the small city of Anderson, S.C.; it also increased 358 percent in a school district in the Bronx.

- In 390 districts included in The Post’s analysis, there was at least one home-schooled child for every 10 in public schools during the 2021-2022 academic year, the most recent for which district-level federal enrollment data are available. That’s roughly quadruple the number of districts that had rates that high in 2017-2018, signifying a sea change in how many communities educate their children and an urgent challenge for a public education system that faced dwindling enrollment even before the pandemic.

- Despite claims that the home-schooling boom is a result of failing public schools, The Post found no correlation between school district quality, as measured by standardized test scores, and home-schooling growth. In fact, high-scoring districts had some of the biggest spikes in home schooling early in the pandemic, though by the fall of 2022 increases were similar regardless of school performance.

Because they do not cover every state, the figures cannot provide a total count of the country’s home-schooled children. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2019 - before home schooling’s dramatic expansion - there were 1.5 million kids being home-schooled in the United States, the last official federal estimate.

Based on that figure and the growth since then in states that track home schooling, The Post estimates that there are now between 1.9 million and 2.7 million home-schooled children in the United States, depending on the rate of increase in areas without reliable data.

By comparison, there are fewer than 1.7 million in Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. About 3.7 million students attended charter schools in the fall of 2021, according to the most recent federal data.

It is a remarkable expansion for a form of instruction that 40 years ago was still considered illegal in much of the country.

“This is a fundamental change of life, and it’s astonishing that it’s so persistent,” said Nat Malkus, a senior fellow and deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.

The rise of home schooling is all the more remarkable, he added, given the immense logistical challenges many parents must overcome to directly supervise their kids’ education.

“The personal costs to home schooling are more than just tuition,” Malkus said. “They are a restructuring of the way your family works.”

In most states examined by The Post, home schooling has fallen slightly from its peak, while remaining at highs unmatched before the 2020-2021 school year. In only two, Georgia and Maryland, has it returned to pre-pandemic levels. And in four - Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana and South Dakota - home schooling has continued to expand.

Celebrated by home education advocates, the rise has also led critics of weak regulation to sound alarms. Home-schooled kids don’t have to submit to any form of testing for academic progress in most states, and even states that require assessments often offer loopholes, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which urges greater oversight.

Many of America’s new home-schooled children have entered a world where no government official will ever check on what, or how well, they are being taught.

“Policymakers should think, ‘Wow - this is a lot of kids,’” said Elizabeth Bartholet, an emeritus professor at Harvard Law School and child welfare advocate. “We should worry about whether they’re learning anything.”

- - -

‘Such a long way’

If there is a capital of American home schooling, it may be Hillsborough County, Fla.

The Gulf Coast county of 1.5 million - including Tampa and its orbit of palmetto-studded suburbs - is famous as a barometer of the nation’s political mood. Its vote results have predicted the winner in 22 of the last 24 presidential elections. Now it is a harbinger of a different trend: the widespread adoption and acceptance of home schooling.

There were 10,680 children being home-schooled at the beginning of the 2022 academic year within Hillsborough County’s school district, the biggest total in The Post’s home-schooling database. The county’s home-schoolers outnumber the entire public enrollment of thousands of other school districts across the country, and their ranks have grown 74 percent since 2017. Over the same period, public school enrollment grew 3.4 percent, to 224,538 students.

Just as remarkable is the infrastructure that has grown up to support home-schoolers.

Their instruction still happened at home much of the time when Corey McKeown began teaching her kids 14 years ago in Carrollwood, a Tampa suburb. Once or twice a week, parent-run co-ops offered a chance to mingle with what was still a small community of home educators.

Today, Hillsborough home-schoolers inhabit a scholastic and extracurricular ecosystem that is in many ways indistinguishable from that of a public or private school. Home-schooled kids play competitive sports. They put on full-scale productions of “Mary Poppins” and “Les Miserables.” They have high school graduation ceremonies, as well as a prom and homecoming dance.

The Christian home-schooling co-op that had about 40 kids in 2011 when McKeown joined it - a co-op she would go on to direct - has grown to nearly 600 students.

“Home-schoolers in Hillsborough County do not lack for anything,” she said. “We have come such a long way.”

Of the 10 districts with the most home-schooled kids in The Post database, nine are in Florida. That’s partly because of the state’s large school districts, but also because its elected officials have grown friendlier to home education as they saddle public schools with politically charged restrictions on what can be taught about race and gender.

Home-schooled kids in Florida aren’t required to sit through the same standardized tests as their public-school peers. But they are allowed to join the same high school sports teams, and are eligible for the same scholarships at public universities.

“It’s a tremendous imbalance,” said Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray. After decades as a public and parochial school teacher, Gray taught history part-time for several years at a Catholic home schooling co-op. She said that experience left her worried about many home-schooled kids’ academic preparation and lack of exposure to diverse points of view, and she is convinced home education should not be most families’ first choice.

“I can tell you right now: Many of these parents don’t have any understanding of education,” she said. “The price will be very big to us, and to society. But that won’t show up for a few years.”

Some of home schooling’s immediate costs to society will soon be more directly measurable in Florida. Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), following the lead of policymakers in other conservative states, expanded the state’s educational voucher program. Children who learn at home are now eligible if their parents submit instructional plans and they take an annual standardized test.

As a result, families in Hillsborough County may be getting their most powerful incentive yet to home-school: up to $8,000 per child in annual taxpayer funding.

- - -

From Harlem to Kentucky

Home-schooled kids number more than 154,000 in Florida, the largest count among states with available data. But in no state have their ranks grown faster than in New York.

Its home-school population has more than doubled since 2017, rising to nearly 52,000. It was the largest statewide rate of increase in The Post’s database, and some of the fastest growth came in a place not necessarily synonymous with home education: New York City.

In 24 of the city’s 33 school districts, home-schooled children increased by at least 200 percent over six years. The largest growth was seen in Brooklyn and in the Bronx, where some districts exceeded 300 percent growth.

Afua Brown, who lives in Harlem, pulled her daughter out of a public elementary school in 2015 after she was bullied in kindergarten. Private school was too expensive, so Brown tried her hand at home education for her daughter and younger son.

She eventually became a leader in the New York City Home Educators Alliance, where she watched the local home-school community expand dramatically. But while their ranks can feel large at the organization’s science fairs, picnics and ice skating days, Brown recognizes home-schoolers are still a tiny fraction of the city’s school-age kids. Her children were among 377 in the fall of 2022 in a school district, including Manhattan’s Upper West Side and part of Harlem, where public enrollment is close to 20,000.

“It feels like there’s a bunch of us,” she said. “But in reality, there’s not that many of us.”

In only one of the city’s districts, Staten Island, are there more than 1,000 home-schooled kids.

The situation is very different in rural Pulaski County, Ky., where home schooling has grown 75 percent since 2017. There are now 908 home-schooled children in Pulaski - a number hard to ignore in a public school district with fewer than 7,800 students.

When Angelia Lamb stopped by the post office last summer to mail home-schooling notification forms for her 11-year-old son, the postal clerk glanced at the envelope - and then astonished Lamb by guessing its contents.

“You’re home schooling, aren’t you?” he asked, explaining that so many other parents had been sending the same official correspondence to the district that he recognized it on sight.

There is a kind of safety, or at least reassurance, in numbers for parents like 36-year-old Jessica Noplis, who lives in Crab Orchard, Ky. Noplis had misgivings when she pulled her 5-year-old son from a Pulaski elementary school: The boy loved school, and would habitually be ready in his backpack to board the bus at 6 a.m. - 50 minutes before it arrived.

But Noplis clashed with two of her son’s teachers over speech therapy (Noplis thought he didn’t need it) and grew upset when one of them didn’t seem to believe that the boy was reading better at home than in school. She soon discovered no fewer than six local and state Facebook groups devoted to home schooling.

“I was shocked to see how many people actually home-schooled,” she said.

Pulaski is one of 19 school districts in Kentucky where there was at least one home-schooled child for every 10 enrolled in the public school system during the 2021-2022 school year. There were 48 such districts in Arkansas and 46 in California, according to The Post analysis. Most are rural.

Rural districts tend to struggle with especially tight budgets, and as more of their families turn to home schooling, some professional educators feel uneasy. Krystal Goode, a high school social studies teacher and head of the Pulaski County Education Association, said the district is already so strapped for cash that at least 30 students are now crowded into each of her classes.

In Kentucky, as elsewhere, public school funding is directly tied to enrollment. Goode said she worries about Pulaski’s home-schooled kids, a few of whom joined her class last year substantially behind their peers in academic skills.

But she also worries about what home schooling’s growth will mean for the children in the public education system.

“If [home-schooled] students are not enrolled in our district, we are not getting funding for them,” she said. “And we are already underfunded.”

- - -

Leaving ‘excellent’ schools

After Cassie Hagerstrom moved to De Pere, Wis., last summer, she noticed her new neighbors had a favorite topic of conversation: the superb quality of their public schools.

“It’s the first thing they bring up here,” she said.

Other parents would often talk about how much better they believed the schools were than those in the nearby city of Green Bay.

In fact, students in the Unified School District of De Pere perform better on standardized tests than their counterparts not only in Green Bay but in 95 percent of districts across the country, according to the Stanford Education Data Archive. Three of De Pere’s six public schools were rated in Wisconsin’s highest possible category in their most recent assessment, while each of the remaining three “exceeds expectations,” state officials found.

But Hagerstrom never considered giving her new town’s renowned schools a chance to meet, let alone exceed, her expectations for her 6- and 8-year-old daughters. She began home schooling when they lived in Fort Myers, Fla., she said, after a girl in her older child’s aftercare program shared a video of her father showering on her phone. The experience reinforced bad impressions Hagerstrom formed when she worked for a year as a middle school counselor.

“I’m not really on board with the schooling process as a whole,” Hagerstrom said. “Too many negative influences.”

Hagerstrom isn’t the only home educator to spurn a high-performing school system. In the fall of 2022, more than 60,000 students were home-schooled in districts that rank in the top fifth of academic achievement nationwide, The Post found.

There are 505 such school districts in The Post’s home schooling database. Data on academic performance were drawn from the Stanford archive, which collects standardized test score results from thousands of school districts across the country. (The archive does not include information for about half the districts in The Post’s database.)

Another high-caliber school district with explosive home-schooling growth is Capistrano Unified, which serves a prosperous slice of coastal Orange County, Calif. In the fall of 2022, the district had 711 home-schooled kids - a dip from its high of 1,000 in the fall of 2020 but still a 139 percent increase from the 2017-18 school year.

Until last year, when she moved to neighboring Riverside County, Stephanie Peterson lived in Capistrano Unified, which outperforms 87 percent of other school districts nationwide on standardized test scores. Peterson describes herself as “very pro-public education.”

But Peterson found that her children didn’t thrive in Capistrano Unified schools. Her eldest daughter, now 20, eventually transferred to a charter school. Officials at the local elementary school didn’t properly accommodate her 9-year-old daughter’s severe peanut allergy, Peterson said, and she worried that school services for the girl’s autism were insufficient.

Since 2021, Peterson has home-schooled both the 9-year-old and her 7-year-old son.

“I think it’s an excellent school district,” she said of Capistrano Unified, “if you are a kid who doesn’t have any special needs.”

- - -

‘The heart of the community’

What lies ahead for American home schooling?

It has dropped from its pandemic peak in most of the school districts for which data are available through the 2022-2023 academic year. Yet even in those places it remains elevated well above pre-pandemic levels, and in 697 districts it kept increasing.

Other factors could fuel more growth in the years ahead.

Concerns about school shootings, bullying, and the general quality of the school environment - intractable problems, some of which school officials have limited power to solve - were among the top reasons for home schooling cited by parents in a Washington Post-Schar School poll earlier this year. Many also said they feared the intrusion of politics into public education, a worry unlikely to recede amid arguments over how sexual identity, Black history and other subjects are handled in the classroom.

Another factor that could boost home schooling’s appeal: Vouchers that offer parents thousands of dollars per year for children outside the public school system. Such vouchers have recently been made available to home educators in states including Arizona, Arkansas, Utah, West Virginia and New Hampshire, as well as Florida, and are on the agenda for conservative education activists across the country.

Thanks in part to such policies, home schooling will increasingly compete for tax dollars with the public education system.

It could also undermine the role that public schools have traditionally played in American life.

“If you go to any public school, it’s the heart of the community in which it is situated,” said Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association. “People gather there for football games. They gather there for concerts. They go to celebrate the academic success of their students.”

Many home-schooling families say they have re-created these communal functions through co-ops, or microschools, or Facebook. But such groups often cluster by shared ideology; home education’s rise has coincided with the fracturing of a nation unable to agree on the results of the last presidential election or how to fight a pandemic that has killed more than 1.1 million people.

And some of what schools offer is hard to replace. When floods ravaged the Appalachian region where Campbell worked as a music teacher, he said, many turned to the public schools for shelter.

But many are also turning away. In Campbell’s Knox County school district, public school enrollment declined 16 percent during the last six years.

Over the same period, the county’s number of home-schooled students grew 80 percent.