Homeschooling has grown exponentially in the United States in recent years. Before the pandemic, about 3% of households homeschooled their children, according to the US Census Bureau. That number rose to an all-time high during the pandemic and doubled by the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Despite schools returning to in-person learning and vaccinations being widespread, many parents still choose to continue learning, a family matter.
“Homeschoolers have a misconception that they live on the prairie and grow their own wheat, but that’s becoming more mainstream,” said Sandra Kim, director of media relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association, an advocacy group.
For those thinking of making the switch, here are some things you should know.
What is home schooling?
Homeschooling, simply put, is parent-driven education. While each state has a slightly different definition, parent involvement is the hallmark of homeschooling.
The modern homeschooling movement in the United States began in the 1970s, when parents who felt public schools were too focused on compliance and rote learning advocated “unschooling.” In the 1980s, homeschooling was increasingly embraced by conservative Christians who felt that public schools had a negative impact. After a series of legal battles, homeschooling is now legal in all 50 states, but rules and regulations vary widely.
The reasons parents choose to homeschool have changed over the past few decades, says Carol Topp, an accountant who has worked closely with homeschooling groups.
“You’ve had the faith-based, religious reasons or the counter-cultural, non-school emphasis, and it’s changed,” says Topp. Now, “parents worry about the school environment, about bullying and peer pressure. Then, during the pandemic, parents got a glimpse of what teachers were saying and doing, and some parents didn’t like what they saw.”
For some parents, the flexibility of a homeschooling schedule makes it an attractive option that takes the stress out of both students and families. Homeschooling can also be beneficial for students with learning or health issues, as regular breaks or doctor visits become a normal part of the day rather than a disruption.
Of course, homeschooling has its own set of challenges, from burnout for caregivers trying to balance parenting and teaching to limited access to resources and support services.
Kim, of the Home School Legal Defense Association, says she and her husband started homeschooling their own three children a few months after the pandemic began. While they could keep their full-time jobs by hiring a tutor and using online curriculum, homeschooling can be difficult for working parents.
Some critics have pointed to more worrying risks for children, including lower quality education and the potential for isolation and abuse.
Robert Kunzman has been involved with homeschooling for nearly two decades as a professor at Indiana University and executive director of the International Center for Home Education Research. He says that the homeschool experience, like conventional school, runs the gamut in terms of quality and utility.
“It really depends on the child and the family,” says Kunzman. “I certainly don’t think it’s a good fit for everyone, but I do think there are situations where it makes a valuable difference in a young person’s educational experience and can meet their needs in a way that an institutional setting cannot can.”
How to start homeschooling
Once a parent decides to homeschool their child, one of the first steps is to file a complaint with either the state Department of Education or the local school district. In some states, this is a one-time cancellation, like in Florida, or an annual cancellation, like in New York. Other states, such as Texas, do not require notification.
Parents should also be aware of their state’s unique rules and regulations for homeschooling, including mandatory attendance, which dictates when and how long children must be in school. Some states also have parenting qualification requirements, usually at least a high school diploma or GED. Many states also require standardized testing at the end of the year to ensure students are keeping up with their learning.
Next may come the fun part for many parents: choosing the curriculum they will use to teach their children. Options certainly aren’t hard to find, from old school catalogs and curriculum fairs at the local public library to an online marketplace that has exploded in the last 20 years.
Indiana University’s Kunzman says it’s important for parents to “separate the wheat from the chaff and figure out what resources are useful and valuable.”
Cost should also be considered – curriculum provider Time4Learning estimates that parents can expect to spend around $700 to $1,800 a year on curriculum, materials, field trips, and extracurricular activities.
As students get older and learning may exceed what a parent is happy to teach themselves, some homeschoolers end up back in traditional school. However, if parents and students wish to continue homeschooling, a popular option is dual enrollment, in which sixth form students (including students who are homeschooled) take college courses for both high school and college credits.
And when it’s time for homeschool families to start thinking about the college admissions process, Kunzman says parents and students alike shouldn’t worry, as colleges have become increasingly open to homeschoolers over the years.
Homeschooling doesn’t mean going it alone, and Kunzman says successful homeschooling comes when parents understand their own academic strengths and weaknesses and where they need help.
There are a number of community supports available to homeschool families, ranging from being a tutor to joining a homeschool co-op, where multiple families meet with the parents on alternate days or subjects taught.
Many communities have meet-up groups and “homeschool days” at local museums, libraries, and attractions. Some states have even more formal, publicly funded enrichment programs, such as the Thrive Home School Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Thrive operates much like any other K-12 school with scheduled classes, a library, playground, cafeteria, computer lab, and after-school clubs. But the students, all of whom are homeschooled, only attend classes one day a week. It is one of five such programs in Colorado, serving thousands of homeschool students.
Principal Yvonne Padilla says a program like Thrive is a valuable resource for homeschoolers, many of whom come from single-income families. It offers everything from musical instruments and a mobile planetarium to theater and fencing.
“We provide opportunities for experiences that aren’t readily available at home,” says Padilla. “A public school student will typically access these resources through their school, and that is the resource we provide.”
What to expect
For parents just starting out, realizing that homeschooling doesn’t have to be a mirror image of regular school can be a huge revelation. That includes the fact that just because homeschooling is parent-driven doesn’t mean it has to become all-encompassing.
“It’s typical for new homeschool parents to start out in a pretty structured way and recreate what they think school is like,” says Kunzman. “As they gain confidence, they tend to loosen up, become less structured, and take advantage of the flexibility that homeschooling offers.”
Each school day, Kim and her husband spend about an hour side by side with their children completing a math worksheet or studying poetry. The children do the rest online or with a tutor.
Some afternoons, Kim says, she takes the kids to her co-op, where they study with other homeschool students and immerse themselves in studies of reptiles and world geography. Most of the time there is time for independent reading or simply to go for a bike ride outside on a nice day.
Kim says one of the best aspects of homeschooling has been its flexibility. Sessions that would have taken a month at school can be completed in a week at home, leaving more time for family activities. This could be field trips to nearby cultural destinations or even a planned international trip, an idea that seemed unthinkable within the normal school schedule.
Whether the current growth in homeschooling will prove sustainable remains to be seen, but as parents continue to experiment with new forms of schooling, there will be deeper questions to be answered, not just about homeschooling but schooling in general, says Kunzman.
“Now that we have virtual learning and all these different ways we do school that’s not just being in a building six or seven hours a day, it’s not just a debate among scholars,” he says. “The possibilities have also grown.”