Nationwide, 1.5 million schoolchildren are acquiring their own kind of kitchen table wisdom. Federal data show a record number of American children have joined the ranks of the homeschooled, foregoing bus rides and backpacks for an unencumbered amble down the stairs.
As they study English literature and math algorithms at the kitchen table, these children are proof positive of the richness of educational freedom. The latest numbers — from spring 2007 — were published this June in the U.S. Department of Education’s annual report, The Condition of Education. The data reveal a marked shift in the way American children are educated: between 1999 and 2007, homeschooled students nearly doubled in number.
In North Carolina, homeschooling has grown even faster. State figures show the number of homeschooled students more than tripled between 1999 and 2007-08.
Homeschooled kids still comprise a tiny fraction — 2.9 percent nationally, and 4.4 percent in North Carolina — of the overall K-12 population. But the homeschooling movement’s explosive growth and popularity have cemented its status as a credible, if not mainstream, educational choice.
What’s fueling the home education trend? Most homeschooling parents are motivated, at least in part, by a desire to protect their children from corrosive outside influences. According to federal data, a whopping 88 percent cite concern about the environment of other schools – specifically, issues of school safety, drug use, or peer pressure – as one important factor in their decision; for 21 percent, this is the single greatest reason they homeschool. Thirty-six percent of parents homeschool primarily to provide religious or moral instruction, while another 17 percent do it mostly because they’re dissatisfied with the academics at other schools.
Why are some parents so troubled by our modern-day school culture? Highly publicized reports of gangs, drug busts, and cheating scandals have taken a toll, shaping parental perceptions and reinforcing the need for home-based religious and moral instruction.
A recent USA Today article by Greg Toppo highlighted yet another cultural catalyst: the so-called “mean girls” phenomenon. The data, as USA Today noted, support the possibility that catty school cliques are driving girls out. Nationally, 58 percent of homeschooled students are girls, up from 51 percent in 1999.
Parents keen on mitigating the effects of substandard academics are also lured by homeschooling’s one-on-one tutoring approach. Research is encouraging, showing homeschooled kids fare well academically compared to public and private school students.
Homeschooled students also have ample time to hone their skills in areas of personal interest. Not surprisingly, they are overrepresented in highly competitive national geography and spelling contests, as the Hoover Institution’s Richard Sousa has pointed out. This year was no exception: Tim Ruiter, a 12-year-old Virginia homeschooler, placed second in the 2009 Scripps Spelling Bee.
Despite its appeal, however, homeschooling is not – and never will be – a good fit for everyone. Its costs alone, in time and money, are prohibitive for most families.
Still, more parents are attempting to juggle it all: one-third of homeschooled students nationwide have two parents in the labor force.
I know something about this. For the past two years, I have homeschooled my two bright and sometimes obstreperous children while working part-time. This combination has proved challenging.
Yet these years at home have been unequivocally rich and worthwhile. As a veteran parent with children from public, private, and now, home-based schools, I also genuinely understand the value of educational freedom. I have lived it.
This August my children will head back to regular school. They’ll do so having learned a lot — both concrete and intangible — at my kitchen table. Are they any smarter? Maybe. But I know they’re wiser.
Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance Fellow.