Homeschooling in the U.S. has never been an easy topic. For much of its history, the American homeschooling movement has been considered a fringe development, one that many painted as subsumed by religious fanatics keen on keeping their children away from worldly influences. In reality, the homeschooling movement in the U.S. was born more from what many saw as early signs of a model that failed to live up to expectations. Often seen as the “founder” of America’s homeschool movement, education theorist John Holt once wrote:
“It's not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It's a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.”
Holt and others worked hard to champion the homeschooling movement, which faced stiff resistance from the moment it began to take root. Homeschool legality in the U.S. was always an uphill battle. Yet by 1993, homeschooling was legal in all 50 US states, whereas only 10 years prior, it was still illegal in 30 states. To date, states have varying levels of oversight and reporting requirements. Across the world, however, some countries that do have homeschooling laws in place have made the practice illegal, either without exception or with some mild concessions based on circumstance.
Internationally, homeschooling is legal in 36 countries, including the United States. Surprisingly, many of those countries are in Europe. Nevertheless, the number of homeschool students in the United States far exceeds that of any other country where it is legal, except for one: India. While the numbers are hard to come by, India has anywhere between 500,000 to 2.7 million homeschoolers. However, as a percentage of the student-aged population, this number is far below that of the U.S.
Still, the homeschooling movement remains mostly an Americanism, founded on the very-American idea of individual freedom, and even viewed in some countries as reprehensible as American fast food. In Germany, for example, homeschooling is significantly illegal, with public or approved private schooling mandatory. Families that homeschool in Germany face severe fines, and may even have their children confiscated by the government. What few Americans and homeschooling opponents realize, however, is that Germany’s anti-homeschooling law was the brainchild of Adolf Hitler, who banned the practice in Germany in 1938.
Undoubtedly, Hitler perceived the practice as a threat to his ability to indoctrinate German children into the ideals of Nazism. Hitler’s emphasis on bringing up children in Nazism is well known, particularly through the Hitler Youth program. Yet while most of the Nazi-era laws that were put in place under Hitler were dismantled after World War II, Germany’s homeschool ban remained in place. An article in the Economist notes that “Germany’s highest court calls schools the best place to bring together children of different beliefs and values, in the name of “lived tolerance”. Post-war, Germany’s reasons for keeping the ban in place are clear. Where it was once utilized to keep children within the Nazi realm of influence, it is now used to keep them away from it.
Homeschooling in the Public Eye
Many Americans who knew little about homeschooling in the US, both nationally or internationally, got a first-hand taste of the controversy and struggle in 2014 when a German family living in the U.S. faced deportation after seeking asylum to stay in the U.S. due to Germany’s homeschooling laws. While the family was ultimately refused that asylum, their deportation also never occurred. The situation did reveal, however, the political nature of homeschooling in the US and abroad.
Only 2 years prior to the rocky 2016 election, for many homeschooling families, a strong urge to elect a president who is friendlier to homeschooling became a priority. For the most part, president-elect Donald Trump failed to mention homeschooling by name on the campaign trail. That changed in late September when the then-candidate spoke about providing homeschool vouchers, much in the way parents can utilize vouchers in some areas for a charter school. This move would certainly allow homeschool families to recapture some of the lost taxes they pay to support a school system that they don’t utilize. However, Trump’s plan to implement this as a measure to aid impoverished children in areas with failing public schools is viewed by some as ill-conceived, as most impoverished families would likely not utilize such vouchers to homeschool.
Still, president-elect Donald Trump’s recent pick of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary is likely to be viewed by many homeschool proponents who voted for Trump as a fulfillment of their hopes for what his presidency would mean more for school choice, including the favorable treatment of homeschoolers. DeVos is a known proponent of school choice, including homeschooling.
Her choice has already rankled many opponents of school choice, particularly the major teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Educators Association. In a statement after Trump’s announcement of DeVos as his Education Secretary pick, AFT President Randi Weingarten released a statement which explained:
“In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America”.
The Changing Face of American Schooling
Public policy at the national level, particularly from the US Department of Education, tends to discount the importance and growing interest in alternative education and school choice. Statistics on homeschooling numbers did not begin in earnest from the USDE or National Center for Education Statistics until 1999 when a survey discovered that there were approximately 300,000 homeschooled students in the U.S. Subsequent surveys found that number increase to 1.1 million in 2003 and 1.5 million in 2007. The most recent survey, published in 2013, showed that number at 1.77 million. While this certainly marks a slow down in the rate of increase, it also indicates that homeschooling in the U.S. has become far more than the social and political quandary that it was in the 1970s.
As most homeschool researchers and families will likely attest, America’s homeschool movement is somewhat of an aberration of the norm -- both in America’s political-pedagogical landscape and in the world. After roughly five decades, America’s homeschooling movement has started to reach a maturation point. US Census data from 2003 to 2012 revealed a more than 60% increase in the number of homeschooled students.
This coincides with a charter school participation rate that more than doubled in the past decade (6.6% of the student population in 2013-2014, compared to 3.1% in 2003-2004). Private school enrollment, however, has fallen, possibly a result of parents who choose to homeschool instead of spending money to send their children to private school. Private schools account for roughly 10% of all U.S. students. Together, private, charter, and homeschooled students account for about 20% of all U.S. students.
It is easy for major teachers unions to emphasize the importance of public schools over alternative schooling methods. Yet all numbers seem to point to a growing movement and interest in school choice. While the Department of Education has primarily served the interests of America’s public schools, the growing number of students not in public schools places an imperative on the federal level to place more resources, and more valuable research, into the growth of alternative learning environments.