More Parents Take on Teaching
How the pandemic accelerated a movement
By Sophia Lebowitz
Brooke Kruger, a mother of two in Ames, Iowa, saw homeschooling as a better option even before the pandemic made it feel like her only option.
Kruger, who is immunocompromised and living with a brain tumor, had already pulled her older daughter from high school at the beginning of the 2019 school year because she was having issues.
Her first-grade daughter was still attending public school when COVID-19 sent children home for remote learning in 2020.
“They moved every kid online,” Kruger said. “But I just went and picked up a curriculum for the rest of the year.”
Kruger decided not to gamble on how remote or hybrid learning would turn out. She started teaching both of her children herself. And after that first year, she never stopped homeschooling—even as in-person instruction resumed.
She said the state’s laxness about masking was the number one reason. She also saw an opportunity with homeschooling that she didn’t see in public schools.
“We’ve really enjoyed the freedom to pursue whatever she’s interested in, to not hold her back,” said Kruger.
Kruger wasn’t alone.
With the pandemic, more parents have been searching the internet for more on “homeschooling” and “home school” than at any other point in the past five years, with the terms peaking in July 2020, according to Google trends.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, the percentage of households homeschooling children nearly doubled between April and October of 2020, when about 11.1% of American households reported at least one child was being homeschooled. This number did not include children taking virtual classes because of pandemic restrictions.
The biggest gains in homeschooling among racial and ethnic groups during the pandemic have been among Black families, according to the survey.
Before the pandemic, homeschooling skewed higher among white and Hispanic families. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics in 2016 found the percentage of students who were homeschooled was higher for white and Hispanic students than for Black and Asian students.
In 2020, Black families had the largest rate increase of homeschoolers of any group.
Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate professor of elementary education at the University of Georgia who researches homeschooling among Black families, said that before the pandemic, bad experiences with public schools were cited as a top reason for their teaching children themselves.
“Many parents experienced their children being labeled troublemakers, or a denial of access to gifted education, or the school staff and faculty are suggesting that their child needs to be in special education, they need to be medicated,” said Fields-Smith.
That is backed up by federal data. That same 2016 survey showed that for Black homeschooling families, the most important reason for homeschooling was “a concern about school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure” followed closely by a “dissatisfaction with academic instruction.”
For white families, the most important reason was a desire to provide religious instruction.
WHERE IT GREW MOST
The Household Pulse Survey, meant to give an almost real-time picture of how life was changing during the pandemic, found homeschooling to be growing at varying rates from state to state.
As each state made their own pandemic protocols, influenced to varying degrees by politics and science, parents like Kruger had to decide what to do. The state with the most dramatic growth was Alaska, at 17%. West Virginia, Vermont, the District of Columbia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Montana, Massachusetts and Florida also saw an over 10% increase.
Among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, the biggest increases were in the Boston, Phoenix, New York and Detroit regions.
WILL THE GROWTH LAST?
The question researchers and policy makers are trying to answer: Will recent adopters stick with homeschooling?
“Many of them are trying to figure out if it’s sustainable,” said Fields-Smith. “And what they’re seeing is that their children, in many cases, are thriving in ways that they did not in public schools.”
North Carolina, of the few states collecting data that can track changes over time for homeschooling, requires parents to register as a school if they teach their children themselves. Of 2.3 million school-age children, about 180,000 were homeschooled in the 2020-21 school year, up from 150,000 the year prior.
North Carolina also studies how long families continue homeschooling. For 2018-19, 9.8% of all newly registered homeschoolers sent their kids back to public school before the school year finished. How these numbers will change after the pandemic uncertainty is anyone’s guess.
“My general sense is that some of the increase that we’ve seen is likely to rapidly fall off,” said Jameson Brewer, an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia. “Parents who were doing schooling at home…have been met with the reality that homeschooling is qualitatively different from schooling at home.”
Businesses are jumping into an expanding market
By Sophia Lebowitz
The rapid growth of homeschooling in America has Wall Street eyeing profits.
Homeschooling–which has accelerated since the onset of the pandemic–translates into parents spending on books, lesson plans, field trips and extracurricular activities for their children.
Textbook publishers and online class companies are making inroads. Their ranks are being joined by businesses that specialize in bowling, mental health resources and children’s bouncy houses.
Curriculum companies position themselves as ways to fill the gaps in a parent’s knowledge. There are no formal government certifications of homeschool curricula and no educational requirements for parents.
“How can a kid learn chemistry if Mom or Dad don’t even know chemistry? The answer is the textbook is the teacher,” said Davis Carman, president of Apologia, a Christian homeschool curriculum company. “We don’t have any teacher guides, because the textbook is the teacher.”
Carman, who said that purchasing curriculum is important to facilitate independent learning, has seen his business grow because of pandemic-related school closures.
“We saw our business double in 2020,” he told the NYCity News Service.
Apologia, a North Carolina based company, usually places one order per year for all of its books. In 2020, the company had to place a second order for the first time in its history.
It is far from alone. Stride Inc., a publicly traded education company with roots in the homeschool market, had a net income of $10.5 million in 2021, compared with $4.9 million in 2020. Its kindergarten through 12th grade subsidiary, K12 Inc., provides around 80% of the company’s total revenue.
Early in the pandemic, the company expected it would do well. During an earnings call on April 27, 2020 Nathaniel Alonzo Davis, K12’s CEO and executive chairman said, “while the short-term positive impact of the pandemic may be modest to K12’s current financials, the long haul, the long term effect, we see providing a great tailwind to our business model.”
Stride Inc. was founded in 2000 as K12 Inc., starting as a way to homeschool. It also targets sales to public schools. It promises homeschooled students an education online equal to a full public education, without parents acting as teachers. Parents can use K12 to facilitate online school for free. K12 gets paid by states on a per-child basis.
A LUCRATIVE MARKET
Recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings outline some of the unexpected ways companies are marketing to the expanding homeschooling market.
Throwback Family Fun LLC, based in Casa Grande, Arizona, reported in 2018 that it aims to bring activities once popular in America in years gone by—roller skating, bowling, laser tag and arcade games. A key audience the company said that they intend to market to: Homeschooling families in the community south of Phoenix.
In an SEC filing, Craftspace Inc., the modular shipping-container manufacturing company, cites homeschooling as a use for its FLEXSPACE structures. The company says that the modular buildings can be used as modern schoolhouses for homeschooling families trying to break up space.
ASK Education, an online mental-health education company startup, also cites the “home school population” as potential customers in its offering statement.
A Long Island company called Fiesta Rentals—promising supplies from tables and chairs to inflatable bouncy houses and dance floors and lighting—said in a filing that business had been slowed by pandemic restrictions on large gatherings and also cited marketing to homeschoolers as a way to find new customers.
“Schools have closed for the rest of the school year and kids are now receiving homeschooling. Kids being home 24/7 has raised the need for Bouncy House Rentals,” the filing stated.
The move by more companies into the homeschooling market concerns one professor who has been tracking the growth of homeschooling.
“Homeschooling requires one to conceptualize the process of education as a commodity,” said Jameson Brewer, an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia.
He worries that, in the face of the growing homeschooling market, America is devaluing a key resource: teachers.
“If we allow individuals with no training, no expertise, no license and no oversight to provide education for a child, that’s serious. It’s a very telling reality about how little we think of education, and particularly teachers,” said Brewer.
COST TO PARENTS
The typical cost to homeschool a child is $700-$1,800 per year, according to an estimate by Time4Learning, a popular homeschool resource site. It is unclear how it derived that estimate. The site warns parents to remember they need to pay for more than books. There are the costs for food that might have otherwise been served from a school cafeteria, gas for field trips and fees for extracurriculars.
That range of costs roughly fits an estimate by Carman of Apologia.
“If I had to guess at the range, it ranges from zero dollars a year—because they’re using a library—all the way up to maybe two or three thousand,” he said.
One marketing company estimated that homeschooling is an industry worth roughly $2.5 billion a year, a projection based on the number of homeschooling families in America and the approximate amount parents spend.
Cost is a hotly debated topic on homeschooling blogs and YouTube channels, with a lot of content about how to homeschool for less and how to make extra income while teaching kids at home. Those sites are overwhelmingly geared towards mothers who may give up jobs to act as their children’s teacher.
Some states, including Indiana and Minnesota, offer tax breaks and access to other financial benefits for homeschooling expenses and supplies. Critics say this siphons money that should support public schools.
According to a 2018 study by researchers Lindsey Burke and Jason Bedrick for EdChoice, a pro-school-choice think tank, Florida’s adoption of education savings accounts, money from the state government that homeschoolers an use towards educational cost, in 2014 helped to increase homeschooling because parents could use those funds for homeschooling expenses.
Many who homeschool make it a point to use other government-funded services like public libraries, museums and parks to enrich their children’s experiences—and save money.
Laura Hudgens is a sixth-grade teacher from Berryville Arkansas who stopped working to homeschool her four kids through middle school. Berryville is a small town of around 4000, at its peak Hudgens’ homeschool group had around 40 kids ranging in age. Hudgens felt part of a community. She said she would tell her skeptical friends from other towns, “the coolest people I know are homeschooling.”
Hudgens stopped homeschooling her children because her eldest son asked to go to school. She said her kids were craving something more mainstream. While she was part of the homeschool group she said she often felt pressured at homeschool conventions to buy curriculum materials. She said that homeschooling materials don’t have to cost much if a parent has access to a good public library.
Nonetheless, she said, “Everyone’s marketing to moms.”
Limited data limits insight
Why it’s so hard to measure how children are faring
By Mary Steffenhagen
When it comes to understanding two of the most contentious debates about homeschooling in America—how well students are actually learning and rates of abuse—researchers say they are hampered by limited data.
Rob Reich, a professor of political science and philosophy at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, said limited data about homeschoolers means it is difficult to assess the merits or drawbacks of homeschooling on a large scale.
“Debates about homeschooling were conducted in what I thought was a kind of empirically embarrassing manner,” he said.
“People would make wild assertions about the virtue of homeschooling,” He said. “‘Oh my gosh, there’s a whole bunch of homeschoolers who get to go to Harvard and Stanford,’ Or: ‘Oh my god, homeschooling allows parents to abuse and neglect their children and play and imprison them in dungeons in their houses and no one ever knows about it.’’’
Some experts said that the limited data means it is difficult to know what regulations or reforms might be needed to improve safety or ensure a good education.
To be sure, federal agencies and some state governments do collect data on homeschooling. The U.S. Department of Education conducts surveys every five years on the demographics of homeschoolers in America and why those families are homeschooling their children. There are more than 2,000 studies in the department’s online library about homeschooling and many are peer reviewed. The U.S. Census Bureau includes homeschooling-related questions on its surveys.
FEW STUDIES EXAMINE HOMESCHOOL ABUSE
In a comprehensive review of academic research on homeschooling in 2020, Milton Gaither, an education professor at Messiah University in Pennsylvania, and Robert Kunzman, an education professor at Indiana University found “almost no peer-reviewed empirical research has been published that explores a possible relationship between homeschooling and child abuse, in part because comprehensive data are not available.”
One study about abuse was done by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate in 2018 in the wake of the death of Matthew Tirado, a nonverbal and autistic 17-year-old who had been homeschooled at one point by a mother who had denied him food and medical care.
The study of six school districts found that “36 percent of the families who withdrew their children to homeschool during those years had at least one and frequently multiple reports of suspected child abuse or neglect.”
Still, the study was limited because no school district had systematically examined what happened to homeschooled students.
The report recommended that the state “consider the unintended consequences of having no clear regulation for homeschooling and the impact on the safety net for children.”
“Homeschooled children are the one group of kids [for whom] it’s possible that they could never have contact with another adult outside of their family. And so the possibility that child abuse goes undetected is almost by definition higher as a result,” Kunzman said. “So I don’t think you need comprehensive data in order to recognize the validity of that concern.”
FEW STATES COLLECT DATA ON OUTCOMES
Researchers also have difficulty fully assessing how homeschoolers compare academically with those in public or private schools.
“We don’t have a way to sort of look at homeschooler academic achievement across the board,” said Kunzman, who is also managing director of the International Center for Home Education Research, a research organization that synthesizes and analyzes existing research on homeschooling.
Kunzman and Riech are among researchers who have recommended that states enact regulations that could allow for more comprehensive data collection.
Reich has recommended states should administer periodic assessments to ensure children are on track academically. Kunzman believes testing basic skills in literacy and math would be sufficient and less demanding on parents and school districts.
LACK OF DATA AS AN EXCUSE NOT TO LOOK CLOSER
Some scholars believe the lack of data benefits homeschool proponents who object to government regulation.
“We have so little data on homeschool families,” said T. Jameson Brewer, an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia. “That’s a feature—not a bug—of homeschooling.”
“We desperately need more insight. And the only way that that’s going to happen is with some type of regulation.”
A leading homeschooling advocacy organization, the Home School Legal Defense Association, has cited the lack of data as a reason to oppose oversight of homeschooling.
“They say there’s this risk of abuse, but they don’t really have any empirical evidence to suggest that that’s actually true,” Mike Donnelly, director of global relations for HSLDA, said in a 2020 podcast. “When it comes to recommending public policy, you’ve got to have an empirical basis.”
But HSLDA has also fought data-gathering measures. When legislators in South Carolina in 2013 sought to require testing for homeschooled students and allow the state Department of Education to annually review that data, HSLDA sent email alerts to its members to oppose the bill. The state does not have a testing requirement.
HSLDA has also funded research by the National Home Education Research Institute, a nonprofit founded in 1990. NHERI vocally touts studies that show positive impacts of homeschooling. Brian Ray, the organization’s president and a homeschooling proponent, published a 2018 article that concluded “the limited evidence available shows that homeschooled children are abused at a lower rate than are those in the general public, and no evidence shows that the home educated are at any higher risk of abuse.”
He also published a meta review in 2017 of 14 peer-reviewed studies on academic achievement and life outcomes, saying that 11 studies showed “a definite positive effect on achievement for the homeschooled students.”
But Gaither and Kunzman have criticized Ray’s research based on small sample sizes and self-selecting respondents. Gaither has noted that HSLDA funded five of Ray’s major research projects and HSLDA helped recruit respondents; Ray noted in an email that HSLDA was the main funder for four of these.
Kunzman told the NYCity News Service that while Ray’s connection to homeschooling advocacy does not mean Ray’s work should be dismissed, “there is an unfortunate tendency amongst a lot of research that emerges from advocacy groups to emphasize the positive and sidestep the complicating data.”
Ray said he notes limitations to his work, like small sample sizes, where relevant and that his nonprofit does not have a current financial relationship with HSLDA, though he is featured on its website. He acknowledges that homeschoolers can be considered a “hard to reach population,” which he attributes in part to the wide variance in states’ categorization and tracking of homeschooling. He also noted his belief that no study could have a “perfectly representative sample.”
But he balked at the suggestion that legislation could help: “homeschooling is a form of private education,” he said, and any government-led study would be tantamount to government control of the practice.