More parents are home schooling. How that will change public education.

Why We Wrote This

One effect of COVID-19: Families are experimenting with different forms of schooling, and rethinking how education is conducted. That shift in mindset may impact how schools – and society – educate moving forward.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Teri Carey and her son Patrick, 7, who is in second grade, work on spelling words in their dining room, on July 21, 2020 in Maynard, Massachusetts. Ms. Carey has decided to home-school Patrick instead of sending him back to school in the fall.

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Teri Carey never expected to teach her children at home. But after weeks of researching how to home-school, she has now selected several curriculums, withdrawn her son from his local public school, and started math, science, and history lessons with her 7-year-old. 

She’s not alone. A poll of public school parents found that only 27% of parents felt safe sending their children back to school in August or September due to the coronavirus pandemic. And a recent survey of 1,000 parents found 47% were considering home schooling for the upcoming school year.

The likelihood of a sizable uptick in home schooling families – along with families experimenting with other forms of remote education – means many parents are rethinking how schooling can operate, and that’s likely to impact how education is delivered in brick and mortar schools in future, some educators say.  

“Right now each is in a box, home schooling and public schooling,” says Joseph Murphy, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of “Homeschooling in America.” “I don’t think the future is going to be that way. I think it will be more like an open playing field.” 

Teri Carey never expected to teach her children at home. But after weeks of researching how to home-school, she has now selected instruction materials, withdrawn her son from his local public school, and started math, science, and history lessons with her 7-year-old. 

“Obviously COVID had a lot to do with it” says Ms. Carey, from Maynard, Massachusetts, who will also care for her toddler this year. “However, it was less about contracting COVID and the fear of getting sick – that was a part of it – but it was more the atmosphere he’d be learning in,” with students and staff wearing masks, desks spaced apart, and limited movement around the building. 

“We thought it would be a better learning environment at home,” where he will likely feel less nervous, she says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The likelihood of a sizable uptick in home schooling families this year due to pandemic concerns, along with families experimenting with other forms of remote education, means many parents are rethinking approaches to school. Some of them wonder if such options create more flexibility for their schedules, offer more opportunity to discuss cultural heritage, and better accommodate different learning styles. Such a shift could impact how education is delivered in brick and mortar schools going forward, some educators say. 

“Right now each is in a box, home schooling and public schooling. I don’t think the future is going to be that way. I think it will be more like an open playing field,” says Joseph Murphy, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of “Homeschooling in America.” He suggests there may be greater blending of home schooling and public education in the future. 

poll of public school parents conducted in June by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) found that only 27% of parents felt safe sending their children back to school in August or September due to the coronavirus pandemic. A recent survey of 1,000 parents commissioned by Varsity Tutors, a tutoring company, found 47% were considering home schooling for the upcoming school year. Inquiries with state and local home-school alliances have spiked.  

Public school districts receive funding per pupil enrolled, based on formulas from federal, state, and local sources, says Professor Murphy. The disruption to school finances from people withdrawing students will range from “minimal to annoying to problematic depending on how many kids go out,” he says.  

Just over 3% of students were home-schooled in 2016 – the most recent year data is available – an increase from 1.7% of students in 1999, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

Susan Wise Bauer, a home schooling advocate and author, expects a large jump in interest in the short-term, followed by the eventual return of most students to traditional school settings and a “small, but substantial bump up in the number of home-schoolers.” She says parents who home-school their children will return to brick and mortar schools wanting to hold deeper conversations with teachers about their children’s education.

In Boulder, Colorado, Emelie Griffith withdrew her 10-year-old twin daughters from private school and started home schooling this summer because their school’s Zoom calls did not engage her kids and they fell behind. She and her husband work full time, but she has adapted by conducting business while her daughters focus on projects. The family often combines school with nature hikes and camping. “It’s allowing us that flexibility while still keeping things exciting in a new environment,” she says.

An explosion of conversations

In recent months, conversation about at-home options for school has exploded on social media and in parenting forums. Parents are seeking matches with other families for home-school pods, posting ads for tutors and public school teachers, and facing questions about whether those who can afford to hire extra help are exacerbating already deep education inequities in the United States.  

Proponents of home education say the movement, which is predominantly populated by white students, has grown to include an increasing number of Black and Hispanic families. In 2016, Hispanic children made up 26% of the home-schooled children in the U.S., and Black children consisted of 8% of those home-schooled. Advocates say today’s home-school families also come from a range of religious and nonreligious backgrounds, though the roots of the movement mainly lie with conservative Christian families. 

The recent AEI survey found that 34% of white parents and 19% of nonwhite parents say they feel comfortable sending their children back to school in August or September. High-income families also feel it is safe to send their children back to school by almost twice the rate of low-income families. 

Muffy Mendoza from Pittsburgh withdrew her three sons from public school six years ago, after serving on her school’s PTA and realizing that the schools “didn’t have a great record of educating Black children.”

Ms. Mendoza tag-teams home schooling with her husband so they both maintain employment and a parent is always present with the kids. She includes a greater depth of African history and lets her children’s curiosity guide their learning. She posts resources about home schooling and unschooling on her website BrownMamas.com and has seen a rise in inquiries and traffic to her site since the pandemic shutdowns.

Recent racial justice protests have also sparked interest in home schooling due to concerns about discrimination and systemic racism in schools. For Black parents in particular, Ms. Mendoza says the switch to home schooling can feel relieving.  

“The first thing I noticed once all of my children had been removed from school was the peace I felt in my household,” she says. “And if there are any Black mothers who are reading this, I know you know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the constant calls that come from the school. I’m talking about the combativeness of getting assignments done. I’m talking about the arguments that happen as a result from the so-called behavior problems that your son or daughter is experiencing at school. The first thing you will notice with home schooling is there’s no more of that.”

Greater opportunities

Marlha Sanchez, from Santa Ana, California, says that home schooling her children gives them opportunities to see their Indigenous and Latinx heritage represented in positive ways, which was lacking in their public schools. (Ms. Sanchez prefers to use the gender-neutral term Latinx.) “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started to learn about the incredible agriculture practices that existed in Mexico, or the hundreds of Indigenous languages spoken. I really believe that for our kids to feel accepted and empowered and that they belong, they need to see our history in a positive light,” she says. 

Ms. Sanchez formed the Unidos Homeschool Cooperative about five years ago, and the tightknit group of families is able to provide child care for each other as parents both work and home-school their children. The Cooperative expanded this summer from serving six families in person to enrolling more than 100 families for virtual discussions of a social justice program developed by Chicana M(other)work, a network of scholars and mothers.

Parents already home schooling when the pandemic hit have experienced disruptions to extracurricular activities, but some are shifting to online activities and making it work. “I love it,” says Dave Miranda of his home-school involvement. The father from Lexington, Massachusetts, owns a consulting business and works with his wife, who also owns her own business, to home-school their 11-year-old son. “Too often it’s vacations or weekend outings when a family does things together as a unit. Why not learn together? I think it’s great to see that we’re all learning and we’re all getting something out of what he’s doing.”  

Home schooling has come under recent criticism, with Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet calling for a “presumptive ban” due to lack of regulation in the U.S. and concerns about child abuse and quality of instruction. She argues instead for parents to “demonstrate that they have a legitimate reason to home-school.” Advocates counter that home-schooled students are at no greater risk and point to research that they say shows positive academic, social, and professional outcomes for home-schooled students. 

For Ms. Carey, the first few weeks have been encouraging. She started early to help herself and her son adjust to the new routine, and they’re enjoying following his interests, like reading about outer space. 

“Public education is really ingrained in my brain and I really believe in it,” she says. “I was very intimidated by home schooling, but once I did the research, and it took a while, I saw how manageable it was.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the organization Chicana M(other)work. As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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