WASHINGTON — When Christina Banks, a Catholic mother of four, decided with her husband to educate her children at home instead of at the area’s Catholic school, they cited a variety of reasons.
“The first one would be to have them get an individualized education that meets the needs of each student; the second was that we were drawn to a classical curriculum; and the third would be flexibility in time with family,” said Banks, a resident of Fredericksburg, Va., who added that her elementary-age children went back and forth between home education and Catholic school over the past few years before they settled on home education.
Home schooling has experienced massive growth in the United States for more than a decade. The face of the home-education movement has also changed. Fewer parents now attribute the need to give religious instruction as the driving motivation behind their choice, with more parents such as Banks citing home schooling’s educational benefits as the reason they are turning to the nontraditional method.
According to the most recent data available from the Department of Education, the home-school movement has entered into a new era, with a more mainstream face.
The Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows the number of children educated at home between kindergarten and 12th grade increased close to 62% between 2003 and 2012. The number of home-schooled students between the ages of 5 and 17 in the U.S. rose from 1.09 million in 2003 to 1.77 million by 2012, accounting for 3.4% of the school-age population.
“It has become demystified, and it’s become more acceptable, socially and culturally, for people to home school,” said Mike Donnelly, a home-schooling father and staff attorney at the Home School Legal Defense Association, where he serves as director of international affairs.
Donnelly said the “National Household Education Survey” of parents in 2012 show the reasons why most parents choose to home school have diversified beyond simply religious grounds. Ninety-one percent of parents cited concerns about the environment of public schools, 77% cited moral instruction, and 74% expressed concerns about the academic instruction. A lower number, of 64%, listed wanting to give their children religious instruction as a reason, followed by 44% saying they wanted their child to have a nontraditional form of education.
When it came to parents listing the single most important reason for home schooling, the survey showed 25% of parents said they were concerned about the environment of other schools; 22% said “other reasons” (including family time, finances, travel and distance), and 19% said they were dissatisfied with the academic instruction at other schools.
Donnelly pointed out that even if one combined the desire to provide religious instruction (16%) and moral instruction (5%), it no longer holds the place as the top most important reason. Back in 2007, 36% of parents listed religious and moral instruction as their most important reason for home schooling.
Anecdotally, he said, many parents are reporting that they are choosing home schooling because they are dissatisfied with Common Core education and because they want to give their children a classical curriculum.
“What you are finding is that people are very dissatisfied with the institutional approach to education,” he said.
Donnelly said that his association found that the regulatory environment has become less burdensome in many states over the past 10 years, making it easier for families to home school.
Jim Shanley, marketing director for Seton Home Study School in Front Royal, Va., said Seton’s growth over the past decade has followed the national trend, with more than 13,000 students enrolled in its K-12 programs.
“The reason has a lot to do with our Catholicity and our accredited program,” he said, pointing out that graduates of Seton’s high-school program have gone on to higher learning at both Catholic institutions and Ivy League universities, such as Harvard.
Shanley confirmed that many of their families expressed concern about the environment in many schools, particularly the public-school system, as their main reason for home schooling. But he said the growth is also spurred by the fact that home schooling has “become more mainstream,” leading more people to try it.
“We find that most of the families that come on board are referred by family or friends,” he said.
Cynthia Montanaro, another Catholic home-schooling mother in northern Virginia, said a generational shift has taken place since she started home schooling back in the early 1990s. At the time, some Catholic parents such as Montanaro took the home-schooling route after being dissatisfied with Catholic schools and their religious instruction.
“People who would have been hesitant a generation ago, who don’t have a strong passion for it, are doing it simply because they are seeing the educational benefits and social benefits,” she said.
Montanaro works as a consultant for Mother of Divine Grace School in Ojai, Calif., which provides a classical curriculum and distance-based, learning-support classes and services to home-schooling families.
She agreed that home-schooling curricula has become much more flexible and developed in its excellence over the past decade. She added that the academic and professional success of home-schooling graduates in the broader culture has also raised its profile and credibility.
Mary Ice, a Catholic home-schooling mother from Steubenville, Ohio, with seven children today between the ages of 6 and 25, said she and her husband, Chris, see home schooling as their “only option” right now to educate their children and pass on the faith. She said they have benefited from the variety and flexibility of home-schooling options. Seton’s high-school program was “excellent” for preparing their three oldest children for higher education and will probably do so again for their fifth child. However, in the case of their fourth child, they decided the Catholic online-based program Homeschool Connections was a better fit for his learning style.
“For him, it’s working well,” Ice said.
Stronger Support Networks
Another big difference between today’s typical home-school family and that of a decade ago is the increase of local and digital networks, opening up the doors to more social opportunities and extracurricular activities for home-schoolers.
“For us, there has always been a Catholic home-schooling community that has been a huge support and gets together to offer different classes,” said Ice.
But there are now other extracurricular opportunities. Ice’s son Jacob plays on the local public-school basketball team in exchange for taking one high-school course. The experience, she added, has made him think seriously about becoming a missionary.
Banks said the explosion of home schooling in her area has made it so her children do not miss out on socializing experiences. As a result, her children have not experienced the isolation that children in home schooling’s early years may have felt 25 years ago, when similar families were few and far between.
“They’re in home-school band; they’re in scouts; they go on field trips,” she said. “There is so much they can still do as home-schoolers, but I don’t know if most people would realize that if they didn’t bother to look into it.”
Montanaro added that, in general, Catholic parents have also experienced a sea change in support from the Church, with the “wariness” on the part of some Church leaders back when she started home schooling giving way to the message of: “We are a welcome and accepted part of our Church community, and our children are given the opportunity to prove that they know their faith.”
Technology Broadens Horizons
The expansion of technology and online tools is also another key difference in broadening the home-school population, Montanaro said, since it facilitates better support for parent-teachers, learning with online classes that involve student discussion and assistance to students with special needs.
“There’s a lot we can do for families that we did not use to be able to do, and I think that has encouraged borderline families, families that would not have felt confident in their ability to graduate a well-educated student, to go ahead and keep their students home.”
Technology is not without its challenges. Ice said that while online classes are helpful, as a mother, she finds, in some ways, the ubiquity of smartphones has made her job harder.
“It can be more of a challenge to keep kids focused,” she said.
Banks explained that she and her husband plan to enroll their oldest son, Brendan, who is entering the sixth grade, in online classes this year.
“I’m able to use these classes to keep him on task in the subjects that are not his favorite,” she said. “It’s just one more way that makes it doable for people like me.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.