Despite Challenges, US Home Schooling Grows and Gains Acceptance
Family-based education has greater foothold in America than in some foreign jurisdictions.
Expressing support for a German family who recently suffered another setback in their ongoing effort to home-school in their country, U.S. home-schooling parents and leaders say that while they also face concerns, home schooling here continues to grow and gain acceptance.
In January the European Court of Human Rights ruled that German authorities did not violate the fundamental rights of the Dirk and Petra Wunderlich family when forcibly removing the couple’s four children from their home in 2013 because the family’s home schooling was prohibited by German law. The children were returned to their parents three weeks later.
The German family has faced government challenges to their home schooling since 2006, and at one point left their country to continue the practice. They plan to appeal the January ruling to the Court’s Grand Chamber, though chances for a victory are slim, said Michael Donnelly, senior counsel and director of global outreach at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).
Based in Purcellville, Virginia, HSLDA provides legal defense for more than 83,000 members and is one of the organizations providing legal representation to the Wunderlichs.
The Wunderlich case has garnered interest in the United States, where home schooling has gained greater acceptance, Donnelly said. While the case won’t have a direct negative effect in the United States, Donnelly said, “It’s just one of any number of things that could provide fuel to those who want to criticize home schooling and say that it’s something that should be more regulated.”
Home schooling is growing 2% to 8% annually in the United States; in 2016, there were roughly 2.3 million home-schooling students, according to the Salem, Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute.
Despite this wider acceptance, some U.S. home-schooling parents have been challenged or penalized in recent years, especially by school districts, Donnelly said. Sometimes they have interfered with home schooling, unnecessarily involved child protection services and harassed parents, he said.
Last August, a home-schooling mother of a 7-year-old in Mississippi was arrested on charges of truancy, booked at the sheriff’s office and ordered to post bond, although she had not missed the state’s deadline for filing a notice of intent to home school.
Although most of the interactions reflect misinformation and a lack of education about home schooling more than real animus, these types of threats to freedom have increased in the past decade, he said.
“There are some attitudes out there in the schools, in the public-education establishment,” Donnelly said. “They don’t like home schooling. They don’t think people should be able to home-school, and when they have the opportunity, they cause problems for home-schooling families.”
Despite these minor setbacks, though, Donnelly said, the growing number of successful home-school graduates in America is raising confidence in the practice. But home schooling also appeals to the individuality that helps define the American way of life.
An American Tradition
“For all the difficulties and problems that we have and the divisive nature of society today, I think in America today we have a lot of respect for people wanting to do things differently. It’s part of our cultural DNA, and that’s because of our founding, I think,” Donnelly said. Throughout much of the country’s history, home schooling has been an alternative to institutionalized schooling in the United States. Until the mid-1800s many American parents taught their children the Christian faith, along with vocational and literacy skills.
“Home schooling is not, however, a new approach to educating the young in this country,” James C. Carper and Thomas C. Hunt stated in their book, The Dissenting Tradition in American Education. “It was commonplace in religiously pluralistic colonial America but virtually disappeared with the establishment and expansion of common-school systems in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
With the growing prevalence of institutional schools in the 19th century, home schooling almost disappeared, until it was revived in the 1960s and ’70s by critics of institutional schools who believed the home environment was best for learning, Carper and Hunt wrote: “Disillusioned with established social institutions and critical of what they believed was the ‘oppressive’ nature of schooling, these dissenters opted for home education as a means of ‘freeing’ their children from ‘authoritarian schooling.’”
In the following decades, conservative Christians desiring to strengthen family structure and avoid educational secularism and inflexibility began home schooling, but sometimes clashed with school officials who questioned its legitimacy.
By 2000, home schooling had become more representative of the population. Home-schooled public figures include George Washington, Albert Einstein, C.S. Lewis and Taylor Swift.
In 1999, an estimated 850,000 families were home schooling, according to the National Centers for Educational Statistics.
Today in the U.S., more families of all backgrounds are home schooling for different reasons and in different ways. Families frequently home-school because of concern for secular or other negative influences at particular schools and a desire for greater educational quality and broader social interactions than just with peers at school. But more parents are also dividing their children’s education between home schooling and other schools.
However they envision a home-school education, parents have many more customized curriculum options today, said Terri Novacek, executive director of Element Education, a nonprofit umbrella organization overseeing three charter schools in and near San Diego County; the members are also involved in home instruction.
“You can home-school 100% if you want, but if you want anywhere from one to four days a week for your child to come into a structured learning environment, we provide that, as well,” she said.
There are considerable numbers of home-schoolers in the San Diego area, and California regulates less than other states, Novacek said. HLSDA does not rank states by number, but California’s designation is that of a state with low regulation.
Dehesa Charter School, one of the three charter schools under the Element Education umbrella, was started in 2001 by credentialed teachers and home-school parents and has operated learning centers where students receive specialized instruction in addition to doing home study, Novacek said. Part of the reason for these greater options in home schooling is due to relaxed state regulations and the elimination of some requirements for home-schooling families in the past 15 years, according to Donnelly.
Parents interviewed for this article said, overall, they’ve maintained positive relationships with their school districts and that they don’t find state requirements overly burdensome. Ann Stamp of Cranston, Rhode Island, said that she has been transparent with public-school authorities’ fear during the 19 years she’s home-schooled her eight children by keeping the district informed about attendance, subjects she’s taught and other requirements.
The HSLDA considers Rhode Island one of the more highly regulated states for home schooling. But Stamp hopes that status will change, especially now that home schooling is growing in popularity and there is less mystique about it.
In Stamp’s own community, now that six of her eight children have graduated from college and are in the workforce, she says there is less worry about her family’s home schooling than there was in the past.
“As public educators become more aware of home schooling, they have to recognize the statistics that home-school kids are doing so well in college and that they’re turning out to be good, sound members of society. … The proof is right there for everyone to see,” Stamp said.
Like Stamp, Peg Gravrok of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is a home-schooling parent. With three of her four children in college or having graduated, Gravrok told the Register, she more often encounters curiosity than the critical and negative reactions she received earlier in her 20 years of home schooling. “When I first started it was more like: ‘You’re one of those people.’”
Apart from several incidents more than 10 years ago, Gravrok said she hasn’t had any home-schooling issues with school-district employees. Normally she said she surpasses her state’s home-schooling regulations, which are less strict than in most other states. HSLDA ranks Wisconsin as one of the states with low regulation.
Homeschool families don’t want to lose their rights, Gravrok said. “Could something like home schooling become illegal because there are those who sense that home-schoolers are dangerous because they might think outside the box? I think we have to be very careful and support [home-schooling] organizations to make sure that our freedoms do not get taken away.”
Each family must decide what type of education best meets their needs, but Stamp said home schooling, together with the Catholic faith, has helped her and her husband through serious challenges — pediatric cancer and running a farm and business — as they’ve prepared their children for adulthood.
“I think no matter what kind of school system you choose for your child,” Stamp said, “whether it’s public, private or home schooling, you could err in not equipping your child and giving them the longitude and latitude to be able to let them go.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.