A revolution is happening in American education.

April 1st, 2007

As it grows in size, it should frighten teachers everywhere.


And how deeply do conservative Americans distrust their government?

One answer to both these questions is provided by the growth of home schooling. As many as 2m American students—one in 25—may now be being taught at home.

The growth of home schooling is all the more remarkable when you consider two facts. The first is the commitment of the parents. They give up not just a free public education, but also often the chance of a second income as well, because one parent (usually the mother) has to stay at home to educate the children.

The next (second) is that the practice challenges most of the assumptions behind public education. For most of the past 150 years, compulsory mass education has been the hallmark of a civilized society. Sociologists such as Max Weber have hailed the state’s domination of education as a natural corollary of “modernization”. Yet in the most advanced country on the planet (on many measures), more than 2m parents insist that education ought to be the work of the family. How has this come about?


The 2m figure comes from the Home School Legal Defense Association. The most recent (1999) survey by the Department of Education put the number at only 850,000. The chances are that the HSIDA is closer to the truth. Rod Paige, the education secretary, uses its figure in his speeches, and, although home schoolers tend to refuse to answer government surveys, a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that home schooling is on the rise.

The market for teaching materials and supplies for home schoolers is worth at least $850 m a year. More than three-quarters (75 %) of universities now have policies for dealing with home schooled children. Support networks have sprung up in hundreds of towns and cities across the country to allow parents to do every-thing from establishing science labs to forming sports teams and defending their rights and reputation. When J .C. Penney started selling a T-shirt in 2001 that featured “Home Skooled” with a picture of a trailer home, the store faced so many complaints that it withdrew the item from sale.

Home-schooling is a fairly recent phenomenon. When Ronald Reagan came to power, in 1981, it was illegal for parents to teach their own children in most states. Today it is a legal right in all 50 states. Twenty-eight states require home schooled children to undergo some kind of official evaluation, either by taking standardized tests or submitting a portfolio of work. Thirteen states simply require parents to inform officials that they are going to teach their children at home. In Texas, a parent doesn’t have to tell anyone anything.

The main reason why legal restrictions on home schooling have been swept away across so much of America is the power of the Christian right. Not all home schoolers, of course, are religious conservatives. One of the first advocates of home schooling, John Holt, was a left-winger who regarded schools as instruments of the bureaucratic-industrial complex. A lively subdivision of the home school movement, called ‘unschooling’, argues that children should more or less be left to educate themselves. And the number of black home schoolers is growing rapidly.

Yet the Praetorian Guard of the home schooling movement are social conservatives. They turned to home schooling in the 1970s in response to what they saw as the school system’s lurch to the secular left—and they still provide most of the movement’s political muscle on Capitol Hill. Senator Rick Santorum home schools his children — or, rather, his wife does. Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, sponsored a bill to clear up various legal confusions about grants and scholarships for home schooled children.

George Bush has tried hard to keep home schoolers on his side. During the 2000 campaign, he said: “In Texas we view home schooling as something to be respected and something to be protected. Respected for the energy and commitment of loving mothers and loving fathers. Protected from the interference of government.” As president, he has held several receptions for home schooled children in the White House.

Just as the teachers’ unions provide so many of the Democrats’ volunteers, home schoolers are important Republican foot-soldiers. According to the HSLDA, 76% of home schooled young people aged 18-24 vote in elections, compared with 29% in that age group in the general population. Home-schoolers are also significantly more likely to contribute to political campaigns and to work for candidates—normally Republican ones.


So there is certainly an ideological edge to many home schoolers. But do not be misled. First, this is a bottom-up movement with parents of whatever political stripe making individual decisions to withdraw their children (rather than following orders from higher up). Second, the movement has a utilitarian edge. Home schoolers simply believe that they can offer their children better education at home

One-to-one tuition, goes the argument, enables children to go at their own pace, rather than at a pace set for the convenience of teaching unions. And children can be taught “proper” subjects based on the Judeo-Christian tradition of learning, rather than politically correct flimflam. Some home schoolers favor the classical notion of the trivium, with its three stages of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric (which requires children to learn Greek and Latin).

This sounds backward-looking but home schoolers claim that technology is on their side. The internet is making it ever easier to teach people at home, ever more teaching materials are available, and virtual communities now exist that allow all home schooler to swap information.

The other factor working in home schooling’s favor is its own success. Many parents have been nervous about home schooled children being isolated. With almost every town in America now boasting its ow home schooling network, that worry really declines. Home-schooled children can play baseball with other home schooled children; they go on school trips and so on.

What about academic standards? The home schooling network buzzes with good news: a family with three home schooled children at Harvard ; a home schooled child with a best-selling novel; first, second and third place in the 2000 National Spelling Bee; a first university for home schooled children (see next story). Systematic evidence is more difficult to find.

There are certainly signs that home schoolers are thriving . One recent survey by the HSLDA showed that three-quarters (75 %) of home educated adults aged 18-24 have taken college level courses compared with 46% of the general population But this is hardly conclusive. Home-schoolers do not have to report bad results. Moreover, home schoolers may simply come from the more educated part of the population.

Yet these arguments point to change in the way the debate is unfolding . It is no longer about whether home schooled children are losing out, or whether they are doing unfairly well . “Maybe we should subcontract all of public education to home schooler? Bill Bennett Pres. Reagan’s education secretary, once wondered mischievously. That looks unlikely. But America’s home schoolers represent an assault on public education that teachers everywhere should pay attention to.



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