Thirty years ago, the N.C. Supreme Court recognized the legality of homeschooling in Delconte v. State of North Carolina. Since then, the growth of homeschooling in North Carolina has been extraordinary.
During the school year immediately following the Delconte decision, there were about 800 homeschool students statewide. This year, the state’s homeschool population has eclipsed 100,000 students. The 106,853 figure published by the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education last week is an estimate based on random sampling of the actual number of schools operating during the school year. So the actual total is likely higher. Regardless, that should not discount this year’s achievement and its historical significance.
We know that the total number of homeschool students more than doubled over the last dozen years. But consider the following:
• The total number of homeschool students continues to grow rapidly. Over the last year, there was a 9 percent increase in the number of homeschoolers. The homeschool population has increased by a staggering 34 percent over the last four school years.
• If homeschools were their own school system, they would be the third-largest district in North Carolina. While their student population is far behind Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake counties, homeschool families are arguably a much more influential constituency than both.
• For the second year in a row, homeschoolers outnumbered private school students. Private schools enrolled 97,259 students in 2014-15, nearly 10,000 fewer students than homeschools.
• Last year, there were an estimated 10,407 homeschool students in Wake County. Wake has the largest homeschool population in the state and is the first county in the state to enroll over 10,000 homeschoolers.
• Last year, 33 of the state’s 100 counties had over 1,000 homeschool students, five more than a year earlier. Six years ago, only seven counties reached that enrollment level.
The factors driving the growth of homeschooling are not easy to identify. An insightful article published in The Economist highlights a factor that I referenced earlier — changes to state laws. Decades ago, homeschooling “was considered a fringe phenomenon, pursued by cranks, and parents who tried it were often persecuted and sometimes jailed. Today it is legal everywhere and is probably the fastest-growing form of education in America.”
After clearing the legal hurdles, homeschooling grew rapidly due to the movement’s ability to keep regulators in check and attract diverse populations to the movement.
As the New York Times recently noted, state regulations often impede the growth of homeschooling in states such as Pennsylvania. For years, North Carolina’s homeschool law allowed only parents and guardians to provide instruction. Two years ago, homeschool families led a successful effort to change North Carolina’s definition of homeschooling.
The revised law ensured that homeschool families have the option of utilizing alternative forms of instruction for a portion of their child’s education, including participating in co-ops, hiring tutors and specialists, and taking online courses.
North Carolina’s previous home school laws likely discouraged some families from homeschooling through high school. Many parents fear that they are not equipped to teach high school-level mathematics and science.
Because the previous home school law limited their ability to seek outside assistance, many opted to enroll their children in district, charter, or private high schools. The revised definition, however, made allowances for alternative forms of instruction. Arguably, this is one reason why homeschool enrollment increases among 16- and 17-year-olds outpaced every other age group since 2013 (with the exception of 6- and 7-year-olds).
Furthermore, the homeschool movement is no longer monolithic. North Carolinians from a variety of racial, political, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds make great sacrifices to homeschool their children. Some endeavor to provide an education consistent with their family’s religious or cultural views.
Others are dissatisfied with the academic quality of their local public schools. Still others homeschool due to concerns about bullying or potentially harmful social environments sometimes found in traditional school settings.
Regardless of the reasons why they decide to homeschool, more and more parents in North Carolina and elsewhere are making that choice. I believe that it is a choice worth celebrating, contemplating, and protecting.
Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.