- Today, homeschooling is no longer confined to the edges of society, nor is it strictly anti-social or even anti-school. Tweet This
- It seems likely that today’s resurgence in homeschooling is based, in part, on a wider return to Americans’ historical attachment to parental authority and localism in education. Tweet This
- Homeschooling was already in line with substantially held American beliefs about localism in education. Tweet This
In the summer of 2020, Americans were surprised by a sudden explosion in homeschooling registrations. In that single summer, the number of registered homeschoolers in America more than doubled, rising from about 5.4% to about 11.1 percent. Homeschooling among African Americans alone jumped to 16.1%, a nearly five-fold increase.
However, no one should have been shocked or even surprised.
Although homeschooling during most of the 20th century was indeed counter-cultural, even fringe, evidence from the past 30 years suggests that today, homeschooling is no longer confined to the edges of society, nor is it strictly anti-social or even anti-school. Instead, for the past 20 years or more, homeschooling has been a well-established and even accepted (though not always fully endorsed) part of the American school landscape.
I argue that this reality helps explain the pandemic-related homeschooling boom in a previously overlooked way. Homeschooling’s 2020 growth was rapid and extensive, not because the pandemic made a portion of normative-schooling Americans change their minds about homeschooling, but because homeschooling was, in fact, already in line with substantially held American beliefs about localism in education. The new homeschoolers’ minds, in other words, did not need to be changed. In my view, most already considered homeschooling a reasonable practice; the pandemic simply provided a reason for them to engage in it.
In fact, despite the 20th century’s march toward school consolidation, professionalization, and politicization, ultra-local (town and even parental) educational authority has characterized American schooling for most of its history, supported at times but not superseded by government policy. The 20th century was an aberration rather than a long-term historical norm. While American schooling has long contained centralizing forces, until the mid-1900’s, local responsibility for schools was common and led to an American system that remains more decentralized than most European ones.
The recent sudden growth in homeschooling confirms that this belief in local, parental control of schooling is once again growing in American society.
The history of homeschooling since 1950 illustrates this point. In my dissertation on the history of homeschooling in Los Angeles County from 1950-2010, Skipping School, I argue that while mid-century homeschooling was largely anti-school, often anti-social, and broadly anti-institutional, by the end of the century, it was re-integrating itself into the wider schooling landscape as a post-institutional practice. It was something that drew from institutions and wider society without being bound by them, providing for balance between private and public educational goods. As it grew, public opinion (and legal affirmation) of homeschooling also improved, echoing earlier shared American attachment to educational localism. The willingness of individual schools, school systems, and teachers to work with homeschoolers rather than against them also increased markedly over time.
It is probable that we are witnessing a lasting resurgence of localism and parental authority in education, including in homeschooling, a trend that appears poised to become a strong secondary culture in American education.
One especially high-profile California incident underlines this public acceptance of homeschooling as not just tolerable but essentially appropriate. That is the California Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in a Los Angeles child neglect case, In re Rachel L., an unexpectedly broad decision that declared homeschooling in California flatly unconstitutional.
However, what’s remarkable about the ruling is not that it defined homeschooling as unconstitutional, but that the court reversed its ruling on appeal only a few months later under heavy public pressure from diverse quarters: not just from homeschoolers, but also other citizens, public officials, and even the Los Angeles Unified School District itself. In fact, it was discovered in the interim period between the ruling and its reversal that although the California state legislature had not explicitly legalized homeschooling, it had been behaving in its educational policies as if homeschooling were already legal. For example, the legislative ban on smoking within several yards of a school made an explicit exception for home schools. As the ruling itself notes, “home schooling is permitted in California as the result of implicit legislative recognition rather than explicit legislative action.”
In the reversal of the court’s ruling, homeschooling was thus declared legal and constitutional in California for the delightful reason that, well, everyone just already thought it was. By 2008, homeschooling was firmly part of Californians’ educational common sense—even that of the administrators of the LAUSD.
But what about in the years between 2008 and 2020? And what about other states? More research is needed here, but two sources of evidence do come to mind. First of all, the simple fact that the practice is indeed now explicitly legal in all 50 states points to a more settled legal environment in this century than 20th-century homeschooling enjoyed.
Second, in some instances, reactions to pandemic schooling beyond the homeschooling boom itself support the idea that homeschooling was already widely considered legitimate when the pandemic struck. Many states that locked down or otherwise restricted public schooling in 2020-2022 experienced support from some parents, but also experienced a level of resistance from others that indicates a strong pre-existing belief in parental influence and authority over schooling, including the right of parents to establish alternative schooling practices. The reaction to the infamous letter from the Fairfax County, Virginia school district, decrying learning pods and tutoring (forms of homeschooling), for example, was particularly compelling. Dismay over pandemic schooling is widely believed to have affected the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, as well.
So, it seems likely that today’s resurgence in homeschooling is based, in part, on a wider return to Americans’ historical attachment to parental authority and localism in education. And while we do not yet know whether this trend will continue, recently, the elevated number of homeschoolers has declined only slightly. As a hidden and ill-defined population, homeschoolers are difficult to count and so estimates range widely, but the numbers remain significantly above the spring 2020 level. The data from my home state of Virginia suggest a decline of a few thousand at most.
It is probable that we are witnessing a lasting resurgence of localism and parental authority in education, including in homeschooling, a trend that appears poised to become a strong secondary culture in American education. Already we are seeing public school systems facing a loss of funding due to decreased enrollment. And of course, a number of states have passed “school choice” laws (many of which would fund home schools as well as normative private ones) in the past two years, and several others have such legislation currently under consideration, including Virginia.
Educators will not escape the current decade without reckoning with these pressures and beliefs. As we think creatively as a society about the possibilities going forward, we would do well to remember that homeschooling, tutoring, learning pods, and micro-schools are just new versions of the old American conviction that while government should protect the right to schooling, it is parents who usually know best how to provide it for their children. Perhaps the solutions ahead can build upon our history to combine public and private goods, student and parent needs, and professional training and local concerns as we renew American education for the better.
Dixie Dillon Lane is an American historian and essayist living in Virginia. Her writing can be found at Hearth & Field, Current, and Front Porch Republic, among other publications, as well as at her newsletter, TheHollow.substack.com.