An outgrowth of the 1960s alternative school movement, homeschooling, is on the upswing in the United States, and a Penn State researcher is trying to piece together a snapshot of the movement where in many cases, states require little record keeping.
“Until the 1980s, most of the students kept out of regular schools to be homeschooled were breaking state laws,” says JoAnn C. Vender, graduate student in geography. “In research on the geography of education, there are very few studies on home schooling because the data are hard to pin down. Homeschoolers represent a significant, but under-studied segment of the education universe – estimated at about 1.1 million students, about 20 percent of the privately-schooled population in the U.S.”
The homeschooling movement was fueled by fundamentalist Christians and other religious groups who adopted the practice with vigor in the 1980s, pushing states to legalize the practice in the ’80s and ’90s.
A typical homeschool family is White, middle-class, conservative Protestant with more than two children, in which the mother is primarily responsible for the children’s schooling. But there are also many homeschoolers who do not fit that demographic.
Homeschoolers reflect the whole spectrum of American society. They can be divided into two broad groups, those who homeschool primarily for religious reasons – termed believers by sociologist Mitchell Stevens – and those who homeschool for ideological, social or simply practical purposes – inclusive. In many cases, believers would enroll their children in faith-based schools if those existed in their area, but many homeschoolers live in rural areas where private schools are limited or nonexistent.
Vender’s work, which she presents today (April 6) at the American Association of Geographers meeting in Denver, looks at the spatial patterns of homeschooling in the U.S. with case studies of four states representing varying levels at which states regulate the practice. Ten states have no reporting requirements and are considered the most homeschool friendly; 13 states and Washington, D.C. are considered low regulation states only requiring parents to notify the state or district of their intent to homeschool; 16 states are considered moderate-regulation and require registration and test scores or evaluation of progress; and 11 states are considered high regulation, requiring notification, testing and additional measures, such as evaluation by a state-approved educator.
“Level of regulation does not necessarily correlate with reporting and availability of data. Unfortunately, there are only 18 states with readily available data on homeschooling,” says Vender. “I am looking first at Michigan, Delaware, Florida and Pennsylvania.” “Before 1996, Michigan homeschoolers had to register, but they are no longer required to do so,” Vender notes. “But many do continue to report, so data are still available.”
According to these data, the number of homeschoolers in Michigan peaked in 1995-96, which was the last year of required reporting. In all likelihood, the numbers have grown, but many of the families have chosen not to report their activities.
Delaware is a low-regulation state that tracks and reports the homeschoolers by school district of residence, sex, grade and race. The ranks of homeschoolers have grown from 471 students in 1991/92 to 2,418 in 2004/05. Delaware also categorizes home schoolers into multifamily home schools which make up 47 percent, single family home schools which make up 53 percent and home schooled through public schools of which there are only seven students in 2004/05. The students are 89 percent White, 6 percent Black, 2 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian.
Florida is a moderate-regulation state that collects and reports data by district of residence, race, sex and age group. Homeschooling in Florida increased 27 percent from 1999 to 2003, the last year for which data are available.
“Florida homeschoolers made up 1.6 percent of students in 1999 and 1.8 percent in 2003 which is fairly consistent with the national averages,” says Vender.
The high-regulation state studied by Vender is Pennsylvania. Enrollment in homeschooling increased from 11,027 in 1993 to 24,415 in 2002. In 1993 only .5 percent of students were homeschooled while by 2002 there were 1.2 percent being homeschooled.
“It is likely that more five to seven-year olds are actually being homeschooled than the numbers reflect,” says Vender. “Pennsylvania law does not require students to be enrolled until age eight.”
The distribution of homeschool students in Pennsylvania generally corresponds with population patterns in the state, however the highest concentration of homeschoolers occurs in Lancaster, Berks and York counties, all counties with very large Amish and Mennonite populations, according to Vender.
She is also looking at the relationships that homeschoolers have with their school districts. In Pennsylvania, that varies by school district and breaks down to 59 districts allowing homeschoolers to participate only in academic activities, 81 allowing participation only in extracurricular activities, 183 districts that allow both academic and extracurricular activities and 178 that do not allow any interaction at all.
In addition to examining the geography of homeschooling, Vender is also interested in understanding geography as a subject studied by homeschoolers.
“We know that homeschoolers are interested and involved in geography,” says Vender. “Many homeschoolers are committed integrators, connecting content and activities to everyday life wherever possible, so geography is an ideal vehicle for learning. Homeschoolers in fourth through eighth grade are incredibly well represented in the National Geographic Bee. They represent about 2 percent of the students who return qualifying tests – again corresponding to national estimates of the homeschool population – but more than 50 percent of these homeschoolers place in the top 100 students in their states.”