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During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of American families have helped teach their own kids from home. But in 2019, even before the coronavirus hit, a record-breaking 2.5 million US children were being homeschooled.
Homeschooling used to be seen as a fringe religious phenomenon, and any parent will tell you it’s a lot of work. Some parents homeschool all the way from pre-K through high school, while others take it up for only a year or two, but overall, homeschooling families are more diverse than ever, with a growing share being non-white and not religiously motivated.
From 2013-2016, I interviewed homeschooling parents and attended conferences and conventions to understand what’s driving this trend. I discovered that powerful and shifting cultural beliefs about childhood, parenting and education are all leading to the uptick in kids being taught at home.
First, kids are increasingly learning about sex education, LGBTQ+ issues, and topics related to racial justice in schools, and parents on both sides of the political spectrum say they were dissatisfied with how these topics were taught. Some said their kids were exposed to too much about gender and sexuality, like Sharon*, who argued that schools “are pushing the kids to accept alternative lifestyles, but they don’t want you to teach about a heterosexual lifestyle.” Other parents felt that public schools didn’t teach children enough about sexuality, like Raya, who was frustrated with abstinence-only sex education, saying that teaching kids “that you expect them to abstain, is guaranteeing that they will not come and talk to you if they are thinking about [sex].”
Other parents felt public schools stifled children’s ability to develop their own identities. Shannon, for example, said she thought homeschooling “allows young people to find their sexuality in a more freeing environment.”
Many moms and dads I interviewed also said they felt public schools were inflexible and standardized, and that teachers were either unwilling, or unable, to customize their children’s education, revealing a pervasive cultural belief in children’s uniqueness. Veronica, for example, felt that “the way they’re teaching towards the test now” stunts a child’s “creativity and natural desire to learn.” She added that public school children are “all treated the same,” rather than having an education that is “more individualized.”
Homeschool parents overwhelmingly believe they know their children better than anyone, and are therefore ideally suited to educate their kids in a tailored way. One mother, Erica, said, “we felt like I was perfectly capable — and perhaps, as her mom, even more capable — to be [our daughter’s] primary teacher.” Another, Danielle, said she asked herself, “who had a better vested interest in my son’s well-being and his education than me?”
The emerging concept of school choice has also fueled the trend. There was a time when Americans used to think public schools should all provide the same basic education for the nation’s children, but over the last few decades, that has shifted to the belief that schools can and should be different so families can choose the best approach for their kids. With the rise of charter schools and magnet schools, homeschooling is increasingly seen as just one more educational choice. As Jacqui, who has taught her own kids for over a decade, told me, homeschooling is “mainstream now . . . just another option.”
Given the forces at work, it’s likely the homeschooling trend will only continue to grow. As Angie told me, over the next ten years, “there’ll be more people doing it, and more acceptance,” especially as “[public] schools are only going to become more crowded and less popular.”
Dr. Kate Henley Averett is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her book “The Homeschool Choice: Parents and the Privatization of Education” is out now from NYU Press. *All parents’ names have been changed.
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