Homeschooling: Expanding Its Ranks and Reputation

by Linda Lyons and Gary Gordon

About 850,000 students nationwide were homeschooled in 1999 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), according to U.S. Department of Education figures. Experts estimate the number to be twice that now -- between 1.6 million and 2 million students. The increased acceptance of homeschooling is reflected in data from the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll study*, for which respondents were asked whether they thought homeschooling is a good or bad thing for the nation. In 1985, only 16% said it is a good thing. The percentage of respondents believing it is a good thing has increased each time the question has been asked, rising to 28% in 1988, 36% in 1997 and 41% in 2001.

A new question included in this year's PDK/Gallup study asked Americans for their opinion of homeschooling's impact on the nation's academic standards. The results were divided: 50% believe homeschooling does not contribute to raising the nation's academic standards, while 43% believe it does.

The latter group may be closer to the truth. A small, but growing segment of the student population that is homeschooled is routinely admitted to the nation's top colleges and universities. A report on the scores of 2001 college-bound seniors by The College Board, which sponsors the SAT college entrance exams, indicates that, as a group, homeschooled students' SAT scores were above the national average. On average, homeschooled test-takers scored 71 points higher than the national average -- 568 in verbal and 525 in math, versus 506 and 514, respectively. It's little wonder that three-quarters of the nation's colleges have policies in place for dealing with homeschooled applicants, according to Cafi Cohen, author of The Homeschoolers' College Admissions Handbook.

If the number of homeschooled children continues to grow, the issue has the potential to become politically divisive. The 2001 PDK study revealed that close to half (47%) of Republicans but only about a third (34%) of Democrats view it as a good thing. Similarly, 48% of Republicans believe homeschooling contributes to raising academic standards versus just 36% of Democrats who believe that to be true. Another question tapped a different dimension: when asked if homeschooling promotes good citizenship, 46% of respondents said they believe it does, while 49% believe it does not. Again, a significant difference emerged along political lines: 53% of Republicans believe homeschooling promotes good citizenship, but only 39% of Democrats agree. And in this case, a regional difference also surfaces, with 53% of those in the West believing homeschooling promotes good citizenship as compared to 37% of those in the East.

Implications of Increased Homeschooling

In the past, public school districts have had little cause to worry about losing students. If homeschooling is increasingly seen as a viable alternative in addition to private schools, that may change. Significant student losses can mean the loss of funds -- in some states, district budgets are allocated on a direct dollar-for-student basis.

Perhaps more alarming are the reasons that parents gave for homeschooling in the Department of Education 1999 study. The top three responses were "Can give child better education at home," "Religious reasons," and "Poor learning environment at school." While public schools can do little about the second response, the other two are directly tied to education quality. If an increasing number of parents feel so disengaged from and distrustful of public school that they prefer to take on the mammoth task of educating their children, many districts may need to work harder to improve communication with parents and give them more input in the education process.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,108 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May to June 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.


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