The Economist
February 26, 2004

A Revolution Is Happening in American Education

The Economist
February 26, 2004

Just how bad are American schools? And how deeply do conservative Americans distrust their government? One answer to both these questions is provided by the growth of homeschooling. As many as 2m American students—one in 25—may now be being taught at home.

The growth of homeschooling 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 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?

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

The market for teaching materials and supplies for homeschoolers is worth at least $850m a year. More than three-quarters of universities now have policies for dealing with homeschooled children. Support networks have sprung up in hundreds of towns and cities across the country to allow parents to do everything 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.

Homeschooling 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 homeschooled 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 homeschooling have been swept away across so much of America is the power of the Christian right. Not all homeschoolers, of course, are religious conservatives. One of the first advocates of homeschooling, John Holt, was a left-winger who regarded schools as instruments of the bureaucratic-industrial complex. A lively subdivision of the homeschool movement, called "unschooling", argues that children should more or less be left to educate themselves. And the number of black homeschoolers is growing rapidly.

Yet the Praetorian Guard of the homeschooling movement are social conservatives. They turned to homeschooling in the 1970's 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 homeschools his children—or, rather, his wife does. Another Republican homeschooler, Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, sponsored a bill to clear up various legal confusions about grants and scholarships for homeschooled children.

George Bush has tried hard to keep homeschoolers on his side. During the 2000 campaign, he said: "In Texas we view homeschooling 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 homeschooled children in the White House.

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

AN EDUCATION THAT WORKS
So there is certainly an ideological edge to many homeschoolers. 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. Homeschoolers 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 homeschoolers favour 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 homeschoolers 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 homeschoolers to swap information.

The other factor working in homeschooling's favour is its own success. Many parents have been nervous about homeschooled children being isolated. With almost every town in America now boasting its own homeschooling network, that worry declines. Homeschooled children can play baseball with other homeschooled children; they can go on school trips; and so on.

What about academic standards? The homeschooling network buzzes with good news: a family with three homeschooled children at Harvard; a homeschooler with a bestselling novel; first, second and third place in the 2000 National Spelling Bee; a first university for homeschooled children (see article[1]). Systematic evidence is more difficult to find.

There are certainly signs that homeschoolers are thriving. One recent survey by the HSLDA showed that three-quarters of home-educated adults aged 18-24 have taken college-level courses compared with 46% of the general population. But this is hardly conclusive. Homeschoolers do not have to report bad results. Moreover, homeschoolers 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 homeschooled children are losing out, but whether they are doing unfairly well. "Maybe we should subcontract all of public education to homeschoolers," Bill Bennett, Mr Reagan's education secretary, once wondered mischievously. That looks unlikely. But America's homeschoolers represent an assault on public education that teachers everywhere should pay attention to.