During the 1980s and 1990s, the number of homeschoolers swelled, reaching 850,000 by 1999, the first year the Department of Education began tracking homeschooling data as part of its National Household Education Surveys Program. Today, while religious homeschoolers remain a significant demographic, fewer families are choosing homeschooling for overtly religious reasons. By 2012, “concern about the environment of other schools” exceeded religious motivations as the primary catalyst for homeschooling.3
Over the past decade, homeschooling families have become much more reflective of the general U.S. population. The long‐held stereotype of homeschooling families as white, middle‐class, and Christian is changing. Homeschooling has become a mainstream option for many families who are fed up with increasingly standardized mass schooling. According to the New York Times, “Once mainly concentrated among religious families as well as parents who wanted to release their children from the strictures of traditional classrooms, home schooling is now attracting parents who want to escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states.”4 Business Insider went so far as to say that “homeschooling could be the smartest way to teach kids in the 21st century.”5
Homeschoolers have become more urban (Figure 1), secular, and socioeconomically diverse, and more single parents and dual‐working parents have taken to homeschooling. But perhaps the most significant recent shift in the homeschooling population is its growing racial and ethnic diversity that is now more reflective of American society (Figure 2). Between 2007 and 2012, the percentage of black homeschoolers doubled to 8 percent of all homeschoolers, and the percentage of Hispanic homeschoolers continued to mirror the overall K–12 distribution of Hispanic children, at around one‐quarter of all students.6
The dramatic rise in the number of black homeschoolers, in particular, may be a response to more black parents finding district school environments unsatisfactory. For instance, concerns about systemic racism, a culture of low expectations and poor academic outcomes for children of color, and a standardized curriculum that often ignores the history and culture of black people have catalyzed much of the rise in the black homeschooling movement. The Atlantic reported in 2018 that for some black homeschoolers, “seizing control of their children’s schooling is an act of affirmation—a means of liberating themselves from the systemic racism embedded in so many of today’s schools and continuing the campaign for educational independence launched by their ancestors more than a century ago.”7
A more personalized, family‐centered approach to education motivates many homeschoolers, but a key trend is using the legal designation of homeschooling to drive education innovation. Private learning centers and microschools are increasingly establishing themselves as independent organizations, not government‐licensed schools, that support families who are legally recognized as homeschoolers. This approach can accelerate experimentation and entrepreneurship by freeing enterprising educators from restrictive schooling regulations and state licensing and allowing families more flexibility. Many of these learning centers and microschools let students attend several times a week, in some cases full time, enabling working parents, single parents, and others to register as homeschoolers and take advantage of versatile education models that stretch beyond conventional schooling.
Where Homeschooling Is Growing
The homeschooling population has experienced an astonishing ascent over the past 20 years, but the latest federal data suggest that the rate of increase could be slowing, with homeschooling numbers leveling off. The Department of Education has historically tracked homeschooling through its National Household Education Survey, a randomized survey tool that in 2016 captured nationwide data on 14,075 school‐age children, of which 552 were homeschoolers. The total number of homeschoolers declined slightly from about 1.8 million students in 2012, or 3.4 percent of the overall K–12 school‐age population, to approximately 1.7 million students in 2016, or about 3.3 percent of all students.8
Given the relatively small sampling of homeschoolers and the potential aversion some homeschooling families express toward government data collection, it is possible this federal survey tool underestimates the overall homeschooling population. But while federal surveys show the homeschooling population is holding steady or slightly declining, some state data show states are experiencing notable growth in their homeschooling populations.
Many factors could be contributing to homeschooling expansion or decline in a given state, including satisfaction with local public school options, cost and availability of private schools, parents’ job opportunities and economic prospects, demographic changes in the overall school‐age population, changes in regulations or restrictions on homeschooling families, and availability of resources and support for homeschooling. Some research also suggests that the prevalence of public school choice programs, like charter schools, could reduce homeschooling by offering more “free” education options to parents and that vouchers might push more homeschoolers into private schools.9
Certain states with robust private education choice programs, however, are seeing particularly high growth in homeschooling compared with overall public school enrollment. Florida, for example, is a leader in private education choice programs, offering an ESA, two tax‐credit scholarship programs, and two voucher programs. The state has experienced a significant rise in homeschooling numbers over the past several years. The Florida homeschooling population grew 6.8 percent between the 2014–2015 and 2017–2018 school years, compared with only 2.7 percent growth in the state’s K–12 public school population during that same time.10
A similar story of homeschooling growth emerges in North Carolina, where the homeschooling population is rapidly expanding. Like Florida, North Carolina has favorable education choice policies, including an ESA and two voucher programs. Between 2014 and 2018, the homeschooling population grew 27 percent to over 127,000 students, while K–12 public school enrollment fell by 1.3 percent.11
Ohio offers five separate education voucher programs. There, the homeschooling population grew by over 13 percent to over 30,000 homeschoolers between 2014 and 2018, while the overall K–12 public school population fell by just under 1 percent.12 The trend continues in Wisconsin, which offers four statewide voucher programs as well as a K–12 private school tuition tax deduction. Wisconsin public schools saw their enrollment drop by 1.3 percent between 2014 and 2018, while the homeschooling population grew by 9 percent.13
The most recent federal data on homeschooling, 2012 to 2016, show that the number of homeschoolers declined by 4.7 percent nationwide, while K–12 public school enrollment increased 1.6 percent.14 Why are states like Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio defying national homeschooling trends and dramatically outpacing K–12 public school enrollment? The availability of education choice programs in these states could offer some clues.
Homeschooling and Education Choice Programs
States with successful education choice programs could be encouraging more homeschooling in a variety of ways, both practical and personal. At the practical level, some education choice programs, like ESAs, provide funds that families can use to purchase classes, supplies, curricula, and other resources, in addition to tuition. ESAs let parents opt out of public schools and public charter schools and access some public school funds through a government‐authorized savings account. Unlike vouchers, these funds can be used for an array of education‐related expenses, not just school tuition. ESAs help to disentangle education from schooling, acknowledging the wide variety of ways young people can and do learn.
According to a 2018 report by EdChoice, a nonprofit organization founded by Nobel prize‐winning economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose, to support education choice efforts, Florida’s ESA program, known as the Gardiner Scholarship, has provided families of children with special needs access to education resources beyond schooling. Researchers Lindsey Burke and Jason Bedrick discovered that many of these ESA recipients were avoiding brick‐and‐mortar schooling altogether and using the ESA funds to fully customize their child’s learning. Other recipients used the money for a blend of schooling and supplemental resources, while still others used the ESA like a voucher to pay for private school tuition.15 According to Burke and Bedrick, it’s difficult to know for sure if the Florida ESA families who customized their child’s education without schooling were registered homeschoolers, but it’s quite likely that if students weren’t attending a school, they were being homeschooled. Bedrick says some of the ESA families could have been registered with the Florida Virtual School, a leader in online K–12 learning, but he explains in an interview: “I expect that most of the students in that category would be registered as being home educated.”16 ESAs could be supporting more homeschooling families in customizing their child’s education.
Education choice programs could be encouraging more families to choose homeschooling by offering funding to those who want or need it. They also could be prompting more homeschool resource centers to form, such as BigFish Learning Center, a self‐directed learning community in Dover, New Hampshire, where some attendees take advantage of the state’s tax‐credit scholarship program to help defray enrollment expenses. New Hampshire’s tax‐credit scholarship program, which allows businesses or individuals to receive a tax credit when they donate to a scholarship‐granting nonprofit organization, is currently the country’s only tax‐credit scholarship program open to homeschoolers, who can use scholarship funds for a variety of approved education expenses if they meet income eligibility requirements.
There also may be more personal reasons why states with flourishing education choice programs have a growing homeschooling population. If everyone in your neighborhood attends an assigned district school, it can be difficult to go against the grain. In an environment of educational choice, where alternatives are available, valued, and sought after, pursuing a different education path may seem more normal. Homeschooling becomes one of many viable education choices, and the more homeschoolers there are, the more likely other families will be to explore this option. This peer effect could be large in states that enact strong choice programs. A growing homeschooling population leads to more local resources for homeschoolers, such as more classes offered by local businesses, museums, and libraries, and may spark more private learning centers and parent‐led co‐ops to emerge. These resources, in turn, could be encouraging more families to pursue homeschooling.
Even in states like Wisconsin and Ohio that have voucher programs for private school tuition, but not ESAs or funds specifically for homeschooling, a climate of education choice could be influencing more families to choose homeschooling. Indeed, the growth in homeschooling in Wisconsin and Ohio, where public school enrollment declined, could indicate that when there is more education choice, more parents will make more choices. Even when they don’t directly benefit from a state choice program, like a voucher, the mere presence of mechanisms that empower some parents to take control of their child’s education may prompt more parents to do so. This is an important policy point for homeschooling advocates who oppose education choice programs that would include homeschoolers out of concern that such programs could lead to greater homeschooling regulation or oversight, which is a legitimate possibility. Homeschoolers should support education choice programs, whether or not they are personally included in such programs, because more choice can lead to more homeschoolers overall.
How Homeschooling Can Drive Education Innovation
In his influential 1955 paper popularizing the idea of vouchers, Milton Friedman explained how more education choice would break the government monopoly on schooling and lead to more diverse options and innovation. He wrote: