Moving from California to Guam in third grade, Rebecca Nations anticipated a new school and learning environment as she made the transition from the West Coast to the tropics. But in Guam the rows of lockers, playing fields, chalkboards, desks and cafeteria lines that she was used to in California were now replaced with the living room couch, her family’s backyard and a clear path to the refrigerator. Nations’ parents had made the switch from traditional schooling to home schooling.
Home schooling has been a phenomenon in the United States since the 1970s. Once illegal in 30 states, the practice has been permitted throughout the country since 1993. Because of various state regulations regarding registration of home schooling with local education authorities, the number of the home-schooled children is hard to quantify, but in 1999 the U.S. Department of Education estimated there were 850,000 home schooled individuals while the Home School Legal Defense Association estimated over a million and a half home school students at that time.
As difficult as the numbers may be to pin down the perception that home schooling has long been associated with the conservative Christian segment of society is an accurate one. While the general impression is that parents choose to home school because they believe public schools (and even some religious institutions) are inadequate in terms of imparting conservative values and religion, the reality of who home schools and why they do it—not to mention their post home-schooling experience—is not as simple.
“Most families who have home schooled, especially for over three years, can give three or more reasons for why they do it,” said Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute. “If they started because of Jesus telling them to, they may also now say that it allows them to spend more time together as a family. A good academic education and transmitting certain world beliefs are at the top of the list.”
Ray has identified six main reasons parents opt for home schooling:
• Some families believe that the home provides a better academic environment for their children.
• The families want to develop a strong family structure, which will come from the home schooling process.
• The parents want to customize the curriculum to their own children and believe that this can’t be done in the public schools.
• Parents want to provide a safer environment for their children and avoid having their children be influenced into trying sex, drugs or alcohol.
• A belief that their children will develop better socially if home schooled.
• The ability for parents to emphasize a certain set of values, which are not taught in public schools.
“It is a phenomenon of religious believers,” said Clive Belfield, associate director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It is largely Christian and largely the faithful.”
According to Belfield, most people do not home school for a child’s entire educational career, rather focusing the home schooling process on a few years, usually at the beginning or end of the child’s education career. He said it is hard to quantify the entire home schooling process and figures, since many of those who home school have a distrust of educational authorities and the laws vary on what has to be reported to the state.
Nations, now 21 and living in Hawaii, said her parents first chose the home schooling route for her and her then kindergarten-age sister because they would be living in Guam for only two years and the quality of the territory’s schools was considered poor. A self-described religious person, Nations’ parents continued the home schooling after they left Guam because they believed it was a better way to educate their children.
Nations’ mother was the primary teacher in her daughters’ elementary years, and in high school her father started doing more of the teaching and Nations’ participated in a parent led co-op with other home schooled children for several subjects. Her father taught a class called worldviews, which discussed history and current events, for the co-op.
“There was a huge religious aspect,” Nations said of her education. “The worldview class was taught from a religious [perspective].”
By being home schooled she was able to explore her faith as well as learn from the strong religious example set by her parents. Nations also participated in a Christian home school socialization group in Hawaii while growing up. She said this helped to shape her faith and to provide her with a social network.
“It is an absolute lie,” Nations said about the stereotype of home-schooled children having limited social contact with other children. “I have more friends than I know what to do with and it was that way in high school too.”
Belfield said that there is no concrete evidence relating to the social development of home-schooled children. Most of the theories are based on hypothesis from psychological and sociological sources, along with the education establishment. Belfield noted that most of the data he has seen refuting the theories has been from home school advocacy organizations.