Hidden rival of charter school growth

Jay Mathews
Columnist October 7, 2012

Public charter schools are a hot topic among us education wonks. Charters have been growing rapidly. They enroll more than 2 million students. Research papers on them proliferate. Editorials worry over what this exodus of kids and their involved parents is doing to regular public schools.

Pop quiz! Cover the next paragraph, which has the answer. The question: What other fast-growing education alternative also now enrolls more than 2 million students? This alternative seems just as important as charter schools, but education experts rarely discuss it and researchers pass it by.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Give up? It’s home-schooling. The decision by so many parents to remove their children from local schools and teach them at home raises many issues, but we know little about it. Home-schoolers are beyond the reach of school district data collectors and federally required exams. They are scattered around the country, rather than clumped together in a big-city districts like charter school families.

In the District, Virginia and Maryland home-schoolers outnumber charter-schoolers about 90,000 to 46,000.

So it is good to see Vanderbilt University scholar Joseph Murphy’s new book, “Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement,” the best work so far on this phenomenon. He begins with a refreshing confession of ignorance. “There is not an overabundance of solid empirical work on homeschooling,” he says. “Much of the literature in this area comprises testimonials and pieces that explain how to successfully start and conduct a homeschool.

His analysis exposes an odd difference in the way we talk about charters and home-schooling. We think home-schooling is about the parents — their motives, their skills, their strengths and weaknesses. The charter movement is also a story of parents, but we don’t talk about it that way. The charter schools are the heroes if we like the charter movement. The charter schools are the villains if we don’t. We rarely praise or blame parents for what charters have done.

This gets at the heart of why home-schooling has blossomed. “The hallmark issue in the home-schooling movement is control,” Murphy says. “As power and influence were passed from parents and communities to government agents and professional experts throughout the 20th century, real costs were experienced by parents, costs calculated in terms of loss of control over the schooling of their children.”

Commentary on home-schooling often examines the religious motives of parents. They want God to be more a part of education than modern public schools allow. But research shows, Murphy says, that in the growth of home-schooling “ideological rationales in general and religious-based motivations in particular, although still quite significant, are becoming less important.”

Scholars say parents are more likely to switch to home-schooling if they see the academic quality of local schools decline or low-income students in those schools increase.

The average incomes of home-schooling families are above the public school average. Like most such parents their children’s achievement scores are better than the national average. “Greater wealth is positively associated with additional home-schooling, most likely because higher income provides the opportunity for one parent to stay at home,” Murphy says. “But past some point on the continuum, home-schooling turns downward as costs of forgone income by keeping one parent out of the labor force rise to unacceptable levels.” Such families, the research indicates, then look for private schools.

Most of us public school people wonder if home-schooling stifles social development. What little data are available say no. “At a minimum this concept is likely overblown and more likely is without foundation,” Murphy says.

So home-schooling grows with the same surprising speed and volume as charter schools. Our debate about charters is rooted in some useful data. By contrast, we still don’t know much about home-schooling. Nor does there seem to be much effort to close that information gap.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/
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