The Washington Post recently published an important report about the rise in homeschooling nationwide. “The Post estimates that there are now between 1.9 million and 2.7 million home-schooled children in the United States, depending on the rate of increase in areas without reliable data,” the story concludes.
This means somewhere between 400,000 and 1.2 million more students are homeschooled today than in 2019 when the National Center for Education Statistics estimated 1.5 million were homeschooled.
After reviewing the most reliable data from nearly 7,000 school districts in 32 states, The Washington Post’s reporters found that the number of homeschoolers increased by 51% in those regions since the 2017-18 school year. The number of homeschoolers peaked in the 2020-21 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic and has declined by 12 percentage points since then.
“In 390 districts included in The Post’s analysis, there was at least one home-schooled child for every 10 in public schools during the 2021-2022 academic year, the most recent for which district-level federal enrollment data are available. That’s roughly quadruple the number of districts that had rates that high in 2017-2018, signifying a sea change in how many communities educate their children and an urgent challenge for a public education system that faced dwindling enrollment even before the pandemic,” The Post writes.
Some education researchers claim that the recent drop shows that the homeschooling surge was a temporary side effect of the pandemic. For instance, education policy analyst Chad Aldeman argues that many families, like his own in Fairfax County, Virginia, returned to traditional public schools after homeschooling during the pandemic. This shift accounted for the decline in homeschoolers.
While undoubtedly true of some families, Alderman’s example doesn’t represent everyone. Affluent suburban families who invested in expensive mortgages to guarantee their children could access highly-rated public schools were incentivized to re-enroll their children in those schools, such as those in Fairfax County when the schools reopened.
Moreover, Travis Pillow, who supports education choice scholarships in Florida, pointed out that many Fairfax County families had additional economic incentives to return to public schools. “The typical Fairfax parent who chose to remain out of work to support the homeschooling of their children would have foregone more money, and more potential wealth-building, than the typical American family,” Pillow wrote in his rebuttal to Aldeman.
While homeschooling declined in some regions, it grew in others. The number of Florida homeschoolers has increased steadily since 2012. The homeschooling population in the Sunshine State increased by 33% during the pandemic, amounting to more than 100,000 homeschoolers during the 2020-21 school year. Instead of falling, the number of homeschooled students in Florida increased by an additional 14,000 students as of the 2022-23 school year.
There are many potential drivers, including shifts in the populations that homeschool their children. While many families previously homeschooled their children for religious reasons, federal survey data reported by The Washington Post showed that the number of families homeschooled for religious reasons declined by nearly 30 percentage points between 2012 and 2023.
The top five reasons cited by more than half of survey respondents as their reasons for homeschooling were concerns about the school environment, providing moral instruction, poor academic instruction, and concerns about school shootings and bullying.
Other families also choose to homeschool for different reasons. For example, some Hispanic families choose to homeschool to teach their children more about their cultural heritage, while the Texas Tribune highlighted some African Americans homeschooling because of racial concerns.
These demographic changes could affect how homeschoolers approach school choice policies. While some homeschool families remain staunchly opposed to school choice policies that make homeschool students eligible for state funds, other parents, often newer to homeschooling, are more open to them.
These shifts are reflected in state policymaking. For example, homeschool students are eligible for state funds under Florida’s and West Virginia’s new education savings accounts (ESAs). “When well designed and executed, the spread of school choice programs can be quite beneficial to traditional homeschoolers and can help new families begin their home education journey,” Cato Institute’s Colleen Hroncich noted.
Homeschooled students still comprise a small percentage of the K-12 population, but the pandemic-induced school closures fundamentally changed how many families perceive public schools and educational options. Today, homeschooling is more diverse, both racially and economically. If state policymakers continue to make homeschooled students eligible for school choice policies and funding, this trend will likely continue and increase the overall number of homeschooled students.
From the states
The Texas legislature is in its fourth special session on education, a blow to school choice in Illinois, and Florida’s special session on education.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the state legislature into a special session on K-12 education for a fourth special session this month. However, a proposal that would have established education savings accounts valued at $10,500 per student, and increased K-12 funding and teacher pay was withdrawn after the Republican-controlled House chamber voted to strip it of all school choice provision. Twenty-one Republican legislators joined Democrats to defeat the bill.
Policymakers in Illinois did not reapprove the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which sunsets at the end of the year. Approximately 10,000 predominantly minority students received the program’s scholarships to pay for private school tuition. Illinois is the first this year to eliminate an existing school choice program.
During Florida’s special session, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law an expansion of the state’s education savings account for students with disabilities—the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for Unique Abilities. The new law increased the cap on the number of eligible students using the scholarship by 3% each school year. During the 2021-22 school year, more than 25,000 students received scholarships valued at nearly $10,000. These funds are deposited in parent-controlled accounts that can be used to pay for education expenses, such as private school tuition, tutoring, and advanced placement exams.
What to watch
A proposed rule by the Oklahoma State Department of Education would require all alternative schools to have an in-person component: 4 hours and 12 minutes each school day. This could shut down many schools, including the state’s virtual charter school, the Insight School of Oklahoma.
The Arkansas Department of Education released its first Education Freedom Account (EFA) Annual Report, a transparency mechanism about the state’s new EFA program (passed via the LEARNS Act in 2023). Approximately 4,800 students received EFAs valued at nearly $6,800 this school year. Most applicants were already enrolled in one of the 94 participating private schools.
Kentucky policymakers outlined plans to craft a 2024 constitutional amendment to legalize school choice policies. In 2021, the legislature overrode Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a tax-credit scholarship program that eligible students could use to pay for education expenses. However, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the program unconstitutional in 2022. Amending the state’s constitution would open the door to greater educational freedom for students.
The 50 Very Different States of American Public Education
Chad Aldeman at The74
“In real, inflation-adjusted terms, school spending nationally is 6% higher than it was a decade ago, and it’s up 28% over the last two decades. The gap between states is also growing over time. Over the last 20 years, the 10 lowest-spending states have increased their school funding by 16%, while the top-spending states have boosted theirs by 48%.”
Education Tax Credits: Restoring Trust in Families
Lily Landry and Sam Niederholzer at yes. every kid
“This policy provides a direct, flexible, and efficient channel for funding. Additionally, it offers a robust legal footing by overcoming legal challenges commonly directed at policies that seek to empower families. The federal Child Tax Credit has set a strong precedent for creating bipartisan tax credits for families and showing that by simply providing families with funds, they are better able to meet their diverse needs.”
Education Freedom Report Card 2023
Kevin Roberts, Ph.D., Lindsey M. Burke, Ph.D., Jay Greene, Ph.D., Jonathan Butcher, Jason Bedrick, and Madison Marino at the Heritage Foundation
“In this 2023 edition of the Education Freedom Report Card, Florida remains the top-ranked state across the board. Florida lawmakers have once again expanded education freedom and promoted parents’ rights while creating a laudable return on investment for taxpayers.”