The Effect of Homeschooling on Public Education & Society

homeschooling family

I just read a fantastic article from Paul T. Hill of The Brookings Institution. Dr. Hill is the founder of The Center on Reinventing Public Education. Although it was published in June of 2000, it provides an interesting look back at thinking on homeschooling, particularly regarding the effect on public education and society as a whole. Dr. Hill discusses the pros and cons of home education as he saw them 18 years ago. You can find the whole article at https://www.brookings.edu/articles/how-home-schooling-will-change-public-education/.

Some of the numbers are certainly outdated, such as the number of children being homeschooled. Homeschooling has certainly grown from the 1.2M number he reports. According to the National Home Education Research Institute (https://www.nheri.org/research-facts-on-homeschooling/), there were 2.3M homeschoolers in the United States as of Spring 2016. Homeschooling has also been growing by 2-8% per year, according to NHERI. Over, however, the article is well worth reading for the insights it provides into the impact homeschooling was having even then. Referencing the data from NHERI provides a good update to it.

The History of Homeschooling

Of particular interest, Dr. Hill focuses on the potential of homeschooling to change public education, if by no other means than homeschooling families voting with their feet. At the time the article was written, Dr. Hill points out that there were more children homeschooling than in the New York City public school system, also equivalent to the Los Angeles and Chicago public systems combined!

Drawing upon history, he points out how home education is nothing new. Rather, it is institutionalized, centralized, monolithic public education that is the educational interloper:

Home schooling is not a new phenomenon. In colonial days families, including wealthy ones, educated their children at home, combining the efforts of parents, tutors, and older children. The rural one-room schoolhouse was created by families that banded together to hire a teacher who could substitute for parents but who would use the same mixture of direct instruction, tutoring, and mentoring by older students.

There is nothing un-American about home schooling. Home-schooling families are, however, breaking a pattern established since colonial times—education has been becoming increasingly institutionalized, formal, and removed from the family.

The Impact of Homeschooling on Public Education (and Should You Care)

He proceeds to examine the impact of contemporary homeschooling on public education. He notes throughout the article that home educators are unlikely to turn back to the public school systems they have rejected.

I have always used the analogy of a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are families who would choose to homeschool if they lived next door to a fantastic Catholic school—solid academically, rich in the Faith, relatively affordable, and full of extracurricular opportunities. I had the privilege to lead such a school for many years, Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep in Napa, CA, and I knew some of those families. They feel called in a vocational sense to educate their children at home. Parents, as the primary educators of their children, must absolutely choose the best method for that education, and so I applauded that choice. 

On the other end of that spectrum are families who choose to homeschool because they feel they have no other option available to them. Some of these families drove from 45 minutes away to Napa every day to place their children in our care at Kolbe-Trinity. This is also a choice to be applauded, even if you cannot see yourself making that drive daily!

Predicting the Future 18 Years Ago

Interestingly, Dr. Hill predicted some trends in homeschooling:

  1. Home schooling is part of a broad movement in which private groups and individuals are learning how to provide services that were once left to public bureaucracies.

  2. As home-schooling families learn to rely on one another, many are likely to create new institutions that look something like schools.

  3. Although many home-schooling families are willing to accept help from public school systems, the families and the schools they create are far more likely to join the charter and voucher movements than to assimilate back into the conventional public school system.

At Kolbe Academy, we have seen all of these trends in our 30+ years of assisting homeschooling families. For example, to his second observation, we have worked both with many parent homeschooling co-ops as well as with groups interested in starting schools.

Doing Homeschooling Well

Dr. Hill observed something else we have seen in working with homeschooling families: they work hard to do it well. We often have families new to homeschooling who register their children in our program for a couple of years. Then, when they feel comfortable going it alone, they do. God bless them! Dr. Hill pointed out the wealth of homeschooling resources on the internet, and that was in 2000. Think of how much it has exploded since then!

Even a casual perusal of the home-schooling literature reveals the scale and intensity of home-schooling parents’ search for ideas, materials, and relevant standards of performance. Home-schooling web sites continually post new ideas and materials for teaching subjects from math to drama. Parents can find advice about what kinds of programs are likely to work for their own children and can enter chat rooms with other parents struggling with the same issues.

He also discusses the negative reaction to this in some circles, particularly in the more liberal, bureaucratic public school system.

Collaboration among Homeschooling Families

Dr. Hill uses one of my favorite examples, something I have said many times over the years: “Home schoolers are not all recluses living in log cabins.” This is a stereotype all too often portrayed in the media. I personally cringe every time a story comes up about abusive parents and they add that the children were being educated at home. Those situations are the very rare exceptions, not the norm.

He goes on to speak about how dynamic homeschooling families are, a point strongly supported by the NHERI research. They often collaborate on subject matter expertise, athletics, the arts, and extracurricular activity. Parents regularly share information on curriculum, instructional methods, and other homeschooling resources. This is often the genesis of a homeschooling co-op, a hybrid school, or a traditional private school. Dr. Hill was ahead of the game in foreseeing this.

Dr. Hill also foresaw the growing trend of homeschooling families using some public education services. Many states now offer public homeschooling, often enticing families with the promises of 1) the program being free and 2) a computer for each child at no expense. Dr. Hill does offer this prescient tidbit:

However, home-schooling parents would be skittish and demanding clients. Many have learned exactly what they want for their children and are unlikely to stick with an arrangement that does not deliver. But all the preconditions exist for the emergence of new schools based on what home-schooling families have learned.

Although growing numbers of home schoolers are receiving valuable assistance from local public school systems, mass returns to conventional public schools are unlikely. Most home-schooling parents fled something they did not like about the public education system—variously perceived as lax discipline, bad manners, low standards, unsafe conditions, or hostility to religious practice.

In general, their web sites make it clear that home schoolers dread bureaucracy, unions, and liberals. Parents complain about teachers who would not adjust to individual children’s needs and about principals who insist that district rules prevent using better methods, changing children’s placements, accelerating instruction, or replacing bad teachers. Web sites also complain about liberal social agendas, particularly those associated with homosexuality and perceived attacks on the family.

The last 18 years have, I think, only strengthened those concerns, as states (see California) aggressively promote social agendas frequently at odds with the values that many homeschooling families hold dear—religious liberty, the sacredness of the traditional family, value for all human life from conception to natural death, etc.

No Harm, No Foul

When it comes to the question of what is the harm in homeschooling, Dr. Hill addresses three charges made by critics: 1) harm to students academically; 2) harm to society by producing students who are ill-prepared to function in the real world; and 3) harm to public education. The third holds the least water, to my mind. The shallower aspect of this argument is that every child being educated at home takes money out of the system, thus harming everyone left in the system. He rightly points out that those students aren’t costing the public system anything, either. The more refined aspect of this argument is that society is harmed by not having all students share a common experience. Dr. Hill address this by pointing out

Like charters and vouchers, home schooling is also criticized for weakening the common civic enterprise represented by the public school system. To some, deliberation about education is a necessary means of making one society out of many groups. They think that people who demand freedom from regulations, educate children themselves, or pay for private schools weaken critical public forums. A contrary view is that intellectual and values diversity are so important to a democratic society that questions about education should never be settled authoritatively.

To which I can only exclaim, “Amen!”

As to homeschooled students being ill-prepared to function in the real world, one only need go back to the NHERI research. It is so compelling, it’s worth linking to again: https://www.nheri.org/research-facts-on-homeschooling/. You cannot read the statistics on academic performance, socialization, and success in the real world and not acknowledge that homeschoolers are a net asset from a sociological perspective.

Everyone’s Favorite Words

In conclusion, I strongly recommend reading Dr. Hill’s article in full. It has stood up to the intervening 18 years remarkably well. If you aren’t already intimately familiar with the NHERI research, it provides a strong support and underpinning for the homeschooling enterprise. It might also provide some snappy comebacks to doubters…