A review of current issues and trends
Lost amidst the clamor of school reform efforts in recent years has been the steady expansion of homeschooling in Wisconsin. Over the past fifteen years, homeschooling enrollments have risen over 1500 percent. Although homeschoolers still comprise less than 2 percent of all school-age children, the steady growth of the movement has surprised many. The close to 19,000 home-educated students would comprise one of the largest school districts in the state — surpassed only by Milwaukee and a handful of the larger urban districts.
The last decade-and-a-half has brought many changes. Fifteen years ago, hardly anyone knew children who were educated at home. Now homeschoolers are commonplace in many neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, these developments have caught the attention of educators and policymakers across the state. Public support for home education has been difficult to discern. However, as of late, public support has been warming as more parents look more closely at homeschooling and more home-educated students return to school or go on to college.
Still questions remain. Many educators and administrators believe state law should be amended to give government greater regulatory authority over homeschooling. Home educators vehemently oppose the idea, believing the right to educate one’s child is fundamental, and cannot be granted or taken away by the government. Homeschooling proponents believe the evidence of higher-than-average test scores and well-adjusted students speaks for itself. Encouraged by promising preliminary results, home education advocates wonder if the state should do more to encourage the practice? Still, a more significant question has arisen from this conversation: Is homeschooling a legitimate alternative to traditional educational institutions?
The intent of this report is to provide information to help answer that question. To do so, this work focused on three questions.
- What are the origins of the modern homeschooling movement?
- Who homeschools in Wisconsin?
- Do recent developments warrant changes in the laws governing homeschooling? This report found:
- Homeschooling is not a threat to traditional education in Wisconsin. While enrollments expanded in the late eighties at a rate of 25 and 30 percent annually, homeschooling involves a small fraction of students. Over the past three years, home-based enrollments have grown at an average rate of 11.6 percent. The majority of home-educated students still live in rural areas. However, in recent years some of the state’s largest school districts have shown significant increases in homeschooling populations.
- Opposed to the direction of public education, critics from the Liberal Left and Christian Right helped to birth the modern homeschooling movement in Wisconsin.
- Religion has been a significant influence in the homeschooling movement in Wisconsin. Many homeschooling organizations, small groups and activities are oriented around faith or religious practices. Evangelical Christians have a strong presence in the movement. An analysis of Wisconsin families participating in a national homeschooling study showed that 85 percent of parents surveyed described themselves as “Born Again” Christians.
- Wisconsin homeschooling families participating in the above study were middle-class, white, two-parent families, where the mother stayed at home, and did most if not all the teaching. Contrary to popular opinion, homeschoolers are very active socially, with participation rates in extracurricular activities similar to, and in some cases high- er than, traditionally educated students.
- Those joining the ranks of homeschoolers in recent years have views decidedly different from their predecessors. Many of the newest home educators are secular and nonpolitical in outlook and are motivated primarily by academic concerns.
- The leadership of strong grassroots organizations such as the Wisconsin Parents Association and the Christian Home Educators Association has contributed to the success of the home education movement in Wisconsin. Groups like these have made homeschoolers an influential lobbying group and helped in the defeat of legislative measures designed to weaken parental control and increase state regulation of homeschooling.
Recently much of the policy debate about homeschooling has focused around three issues:
In recent years homeschoolers have sought increased access to public school services. Those on both sides of the debate have mixed feelings about the impact of shared services legislation. Administrators believe the legislation may lead to higher costs and cause some students to be shut out of desired classes. Home education proponents contend the law’s provision that homeschoolers comply with a school’s formal admission requirements constitutes discrimination. They also fear legislation granting homeschoolers access to courses and services in public schools may actually lead to increased regulation.
The current momentum in favor of standardized testing has made many homeschoolers apprehensive. Although currently exempt from testing regulations, homeschoolers strongly oppose the use of such tests. They believe tests are another means to control what is taught, by whom, and when. Such requirements effectively transfer control of education from the parents to the educational system. A number of questions emerge from these concerns.
- What will happen to homeschoolers who perform poorly?
- Can homeschoolers get a fair shake from teachers and administrators, many of whom oppose educating children at home?
- Who will decide these issues?
Homeschooling and College
Despite expectations, homeschooling students have had little impact on enrollment at the state’s colleges and universities. Figures from the University of Wisconsin revealed only 32 homeschooled students entered the system as new freshmen last fall. Private colleges around the state reported similar enrollment figures. Observers say two factors may help to explain the data. Homeschoolers may choose to avoid large public colleges and universities for the same reasons that motivated them to homeschool throughout grade school or high school. Furthermore, many homeschoolers demonstrate a pattern of entering college early or late. Should these interpretations not be true, a very large percentage of homeschoolers remains unaccounted for after twelfth grade. Verifying these interpretations and data on the academic performance of homeschoolers are two areas in need of additional efforts.
- Most believe Wisconsin’s homeschooling law is working well. Opponents faulted the law for its lack of accountability. However, claims that the law produced maladjusted students unable to work remain unsubstantiated. In recent years, homeschooling advocates have gained support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, many of whom view the movement as a means of empowering parents and enabling educational reform efforts. These sentiments reflect a lack of political support for changes in Wisconsin’s homeschooling law.
- Homeschoolers cite much anecdotal evidence and a variety of national research studies in support of the practice. Still, this report finds a need to conduct additional research on homeschooling families in Wisconsin. Questions for investigation may include:
- How do home-educated students perform academically in high school and college?
- What are the career paths of homeschooled students after high school?
- What factors influence these decisions?
- How do homeschooled students perform in the work world?
Homeschooling can result in significant savings of educational resources. State support per public school pupil in 1997-98 was approximately $4,940. Hence, the 18,303 students — pre-K students are excluded from our calculation — who were homeschooled in the 1997-98 school year saved the state approximately $90,416,820. Conservative estimates of total savings since the mid-1980s would certainly reach several hundred million dollars. Since much local evidence suggest most homeschooled students do as well academically, if not better, than traditionally educated students, decision makers would do well to take a close hard look at the economic benefits of homeschooling. That homeschooling continues to expand in Wisconsin and elsewhere suggests students and parents find homeschooling an attractive alternative to traditional education. Ensuring that public policy balances parental rights and freedoms with the state’s responsibility to guarantee an educated citizenry must continue to be the central focus of parents and policymakers involved in resolving this important issue.