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Homeschooling: the sleeping giant of American education.

A GROWING NUMBER of American families are choosing to homeschool

their children. According to the Department of Education s National

Center for Education Statistics, approximately 850,000 students were

being homeschooled in 1998. The National Home Education Research

Institute indicates that number now stands at around 3,000,000.

Families cite common reasons for choosing to homeschool their

offspring, such as concern about the environment of a designated school

(85%), dissatisfaction with the academic instruction in a particular

school system (68%), and a preference for religious and moral

instruction not provided in traditional schools (72%).

The decentralized nature of the homeschooling population limits

researchers’ ability to draw conclusions about the specific effect

of homeschooling on various outcome measures, such as academic

achievement. However, evaluations of homeschooled students show they

perform well in that academic environment. Moreover, a survey of adults

who were homeschooled suggests that it leads to positive life outcomes,

such as higher college attendance and enrollment.

The growing number of students being educated at home is

influencing the American education system and saving taxpayers as much

as $9,900,000,000 each year. The percentage of homeschooled students

likely will continue to grow. Technological and societal trends may make

homeschooling a viable option worth pursuing. Federal and state

policymakers and the private sector have the ability to safeguard

homeschooling and improve the opportunities for families to give their

children the best possible education at home.

Homeschooling is an alternative form of education in which children

are instructed at home rather than at a traditional public or private

school. Youngsters are taught by parents, guardians, or other tutors.

Historically, home education has been a primary method for parents to

educate their children. Many of America’s Founders were educated at

home, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Over time, the

rise of compulsory education laws eroded the prevalence of home

instruction. However, since the 1970s and 1980s, homeschooling gradually

has become a popular method of instruction once again.

During this time, homeschooling advocates have pressed for the

legal right to forgo compulsory school attendance and educate their

children at home, but not without opposition. For instance, the National

Education Association has advocated placing restrictions on

homeschooling. At its 2007 annual meeting, it approved a resolution

calling for tighter regulation of homeschooling: “When home

schooling occurs … instruction should be by persons who are licensed

by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum

approved by the state department of education should be used.”

However, such efforts to restrict or tightly regulate homeschooling

largely have failed, as, at present, homeschooling is legal in every

slate.

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a nonprofit

organization that advocates for homeschooling, rates the degree to which

states regulate homeschooling. According to HSLDA, 10 states require no

notice from homeschoolers; 15 have “low regulation” (requiring

only parental notification); 19 have “moderate regulations”:

and six states have “high regulation.”

The establishment of legal homeschooling rights across the country

has facilitated strong growth in the number of youngsters being educated

at home. National Home Education Research Institute figures reveal that

about 2,400,000 children were educated at home during the 2005-06 school

year, and that the number of children being homeschooled grows seven to

12% per year.

A Department of Education survey provides background on

homeschooling families. White students are more likely to be

homeschooled than African-American or Hispanic pupils. Kids in

two-parent families with only one parent in the workforce also are more

likely to be homeschooled. Youngsters from families with annual

household incomes below $75,000 were more likely to be homeschooled than

those with families who earned more than that amount each year.

Participation also was higher among families with at least one parent

who had earned a college degree.

The decentralized nature of the homeschooling population makes it

difficult to draw definitive conclusions about academic achievement and

other outcomes. No controlled experiments have been conducted comparing

the performance of homeschooled students with the performance of their

peers in traditional schools. Without a controlled experiment, drawing

definite conclusions about the effectiveness of homeschooling as a

method of instruction compared to traditional schooling is impossible.

However, a number of researchers have evaluated the performance of

homeschoolers on various measures and have reported that these

individuals seem to be doing well in their learning environment.

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Lawrence Rudner of the University of Maryland administered academic

achievement tests to 20,760 homeschooled students. He reports that

“the achievement tests of this group of homeschool students are

exceptionally high–the median scores were typically in the 70th to 80th

percentile.” He also found that 25% of the homeschooled students

tested are enrolled one or more grade levels above their age-level peers

in traditional public or private schools. Rudner cautions that the

results do not demonstrate that homeschooling is superior to public or

private education, but he does state that the findings suggest that

“homeschool students do quite well in that environment.”

Paul Jones and Gene Gloeckner published an evaluation of first-year

college performance of homeschoolers and traditional public school

students in The Journal of College Admissions. They summarized the

available academic literature and reported that the evidence shows that

homeschoolers perform as well as traditional public school students on

college preparatory exams and in first-year college grade point

averages. The researchers conducted their own experiment and found no

statistical difference between homeschool graduates and traditional high

school graduates on nine measures of college preparedness. “The

academic performance analyses,” conclude the authors,

“indicate that homeschool graduates are as ready for college as

traditional nigh school graduates and that they perform as well on

national college assessment tests as traditional high school

graduates.”

Evidence also suggests that homeschoolers experience positive life

outcomes compared to the general population. Brian Ray of the National

Home Education Research Institute surveyed 7,300 adults (ages 18 through

24) who were homeschooled. Among the respondents, 74% had taken

college-level courses, compared to 46% of the general population. They

also were involved in their communities and engaged in civic affairs at

higher rates than the average population. They were more likely to

report being “happy” than was the general population. Although

this survey is not a scientific measure, the results support the idea

that homeschooling likely leads to similar or positive life outcomes

compared to the general population.

Academic researchers have concluded that family background

characteristics are a primary factor in shaping students’ academic

achievement. Homeschooling families are more likely to have at least one

parent who earned a college degree compared to the general population,

and homeschooled students are more likely to live in two-parent

households.

The growing number of students being educated at home affects the

public education system in a number of ways. Homeschooling saves

taxpayers resources that otherwise would have been spent educating these

children if they had enrolled in public school. Public education is

financed through complex funding formulas and revenue streams that come

from Federal, state, and local taxpayers. Determining the extent of

savings from each homeschooled child is difficult. Generally, states

fund schools through a formula system on a per student basis, but the

Federal government and local government bodies do not provide funding on

a per student basis. However, it is safe to say that. if the

nation’s approximately 3,000,000 homeschooled students chose to

enroll in U.S. public schools for the 2009-10 academic year, states and

communities would need to allocate significant funding to accommodate

all of them.

Help with homeschooling

The continued growth of the number of homeschooling families has

led to a proliferation of resources and networks that facilitate the

process. Twenty-five years ago, a family that wanted to homeschool would

likely have had limited curriculum and instructional options. Today, the

options are nearly boundless. An Internet search on

“homeschooling” produces more than 13,000,000 hits. Parents

can find and purchase curriculum materials through online exchanges and

other networks. Hundreds of websites, blogs, and books are devoted to

supporting parents who homeschool. In some cases, parents can access

free or low-cost instructional products to teach their kids. Other

options include online learning services that offer professionally

developed courses for relatively low monthly fees. Across the U.S., a

growing number of for-profit tutoring providers are in operation,

allowing parents the opportunity to make available supplementary

instruction for their children.

Parents also can join a growing number of homeschooling networks

across the U.S. and around the world. Most states have some form of

support network for homeschooling. They facilitate collaborative

instruction and opportunities for socialization for homeschooled

students. For instance, pupils can participate in speech and debate

tournaments tailored to homeschooled students through the National

Christian Forensics and Communications Association. Homeschoolers can

take part in various athletic networks as well. Many states have

policies that facilitate home instruction by allowing homeschoolers to

participate in some public school activities. At least 20 states have

policies established by statute or legal ruling that allow homeschooled

students to take part in extracurricular activities and athletics.

Many public schools offer homeschooled students the opportunity to

attend part time. The Education Commission of the States reports that

encouraging these pupils to attend can lead to additional funding–as

well as requirements that homeschooled individuals participate in

state-mandated testing. In addition, a growing number of states offer

some form of distance and online learning opportunities. According to

the Department of Education, some 40% of public school districts have

students enrolled in distance education courses. In all, over 10% of

public schools nationwide–15% in rural communities–have distance

education courses.

Education tax credits or deductions for qualifying

education-related expenses are available in some states. Education tax

credits and deductions reduce a taxpayer’s tax liability or the

amount of income that is subject to tax. For example, Iowa, Illinois,

and Minnesota give various tax credits and deductions for

education-related expenses, including private school tuition and

payments for instructional materials. As education tax credits

proliferate across the country, homeschooling could become a more

affordable option.

Other technological and societal trends also could contribute to

continued growth in homeschooling. In the future, more families may be

able to find creative ways to balance work and home responsibilities,

potentially increasing the likelihood that they can homeschool their

children. One promising trend is telecommuting. According to the U.S.

Census Bureau, an estimated 5,000,000 Americans were working from home

before the onset of the recession. The percentage of individuals who

work from home has increased at twice the growth rate of the overall

workforce.

Homeschooling is an important component of the student-centered

educational reforms that are changing the landscape of American

education. Millions of families benefit from greater opportunities to

control how their children are educated through student-centered

reforms. For instance, more than 150,000 children are attending private

schools using publicly funded scholarships through private school-choice

programs, and an estimated 1,200,000 students attend charter schools

instead of traditional public schools.

The growing number of students taking advantage of school-choice

options has created competition for the traditional public school

system. The threat of losing students pressures public schools to reform

in order to attract more students. Harvard University economist Caroline

Hoxby, evaluating the competitive effects of school-choice programs in

Arizona, Wisconsin, and Michigan, found that competition has caused

public schools to improve performance. Whether the growing trend toward

homeschooling is creating similar competition for other traditional

public school systems is an interesting question for further academic

research.

Dan Lips is an education analyst and Evan Feinberg is a former

research assistant in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The

Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.

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