Opinion: Daily Journal

Education seeing ‘unconventional’ growth

Homeschooling is the maverick among North Carolina’s K-12 options. Since its launch three decades ago, homeschooling has bucked convention and stumped prognosticators. Age and experience haven’t tamed its life outside the lines; this unorthodox movement still defies expectations. Yet amid unpredictability, one constant has emerged: Homeschooling is enormously popular.

Thirty years ago 809 students were homeschooled in North Carolina — too few to populate the halls of a large public high school. Now, home is the hub like never before. Numbers released this summer by the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education show an estimated 118,268 students were homeschooled in 2015-16 — an almost 11 percent increase from 2014-15 and an 84 percent uptick over the past decade.

Growth has brought greater diversity. Though faith-based identification remains strong, homeschooling now skews more secular than private schooling: 60 percent of homeschools and 66 percent of private schools statewide are religious. Homeschooling is shooting up in rural areas with limited private options and in populous counties with myriad charter and private schools. Last year homeschool enrollments increased 13 percent in Mecklenburg County and 12 percent in Durham County. Overall, homeschool numbers rose in 98 of 100 N.C. counties; in 67 counties, enrollments increased by 9 percent or more.

This is remarkable given the parental sacrifice homeschooling requires. Work, financial, and time constraints prevent many families from considering it. Why do it? Disappointment with traditional schooling is a primary catalyst, says Spencer Mason, Law and Policy Director at North Carolinians for Home Education.

“The big reason that I’ve seen is that parents think they can do a better job.” He sees substantial homeschooling growth in the minority population and among parents of children with learning disabilities. Longstanding but important factors, adds Mason, include inculcating religious values and protecting kids from bullying.

Kristi Passaro, a Durham County mother of three and veteran homeschooler, says “different factors for different kids” influence homeschooling decisions. The freedom homeschooling affords her family is a huge draw.

“There’s so much more flexibility to customize the academic program to the particular child.”

Flexibility got a boost from a new definition of homeschools, passed in 2013. No longer required to provide primary instruction in core subjects, parents determine the “scope and sequence” of instruction but may use tutors, co-ops, or online and other classes to augment their teaching. Mason, who worked to get the law passed, says it has “freed up a lot of parents to get outside help when they need it.”

What else may be fueling trends? Homeschooling offers stability and portability, a boon to military families facing frequent deployments. In Onslow County, home to Camp Lejeune, homeschooling growth has been dramatic, rising 16 percent last year and 23 percent the year before. In the counties surrounding Fort Bragg, homeschool populations are substantial and rising.

Like many families, the Passaros make homeschooling decisions “year by year.” Their oldest son, an 11th grader, attends private school; their two younger children are homeschooled. Their 10th grade daughter’s rich but unconventional homeschool experience features home-based and tutor-led classes, basketball, and piano practice — and a job 10 hours a week as an assistant paralegal at a local law firm. Their youngest son, a sixth-grader, enjoys an outside science class but completes most schoolwork at home, including an online class in personal finance.

I hear all this and think about what drives mainstream education today — a well-intentioned but narrow conceptualization of college and career readiness that can lead to boredom and burnout. If independent thinking, intellectual curiosity, and relevant life skills are critical 21st century competencies, where will we be? Get ready. Homeschooled mavericks just might rule the world.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.