From the countercultural reformers of the 1960’s and 1970’s to the conservative Christians of the 1990’s and 2000’s, families have had several reasons for choosing homeschooling. Chief are religious- and politically-based reasons.
For the most part, homeschooling has gained popularity in response to and as a contest against the increasing politicization and over-bureaucratization of the public school system. Through national censuses and focused surveys, researchers have identified a few key political and religious demographics among homeschooling families.
In 1994, the Current Population Survey added questions concerning homeschooled students; in 1996 and 1999, the National Household Education Surveys followed suit (Bauman 4). By simultaneously studying the 1994 CPS and the 1996 and 1999 NHES, Kurt J. Bauman, chief of the Education Branch at the Census Bureau, characterized the homeschooling population in the United States of the 1990s.
According to the NHES, “religious reasons” ranked second as a main motivation for homeschooling, with 33% of parents choosing this option (Bauman 13). Objection to what schools taught ranked #5, with 14.4% of parents agreeing.
Besides obvious academic beliefs, then, some parents consider moral issues in public schools a legitimate cause for concern, and reason to home-educate. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the most powerful homeschooling interest group in America, supports homeschooling for moral and religious reasons. Senior Counsel Christopher Klicka or HSLDA explained that parents are concerned about the “moral decline in the public schools” and “are dissatisfied and disappointed with the removal of God and religion” (qtd. in Moran 1065).
In a way, moral and religious reasons intertwine with political reasons. In his critical analysis of homeschooling and its impact on the community at large, education scholar Michael W. Apple points to the emergence of three major elements in a growing right-leaning coalition: neo-liberals, who aim to modernize the economy; neo-conservatives, who aim for a return to high standards, discipline, and real knowledge; and the white, working middle class, who mistrust the state (Apple 64). The third group has an especial influence in the homeschooling realm. Their belief in the unreliability of the state is a legacy of 18th century caution toward government after the encroachments of the British.
The state and other institutions supposedly threaten the home, the family, and traditional values, which include traditional religion. Given the perception that the state is evolving into a faith-neutral or anti-religion body, a decision to withdraw one’s children from a public school for the state mistrust reasons of the white, working middle class blends morals and religion with politics.
The categorization of homeschooling families in observational studies also reflects these moral/political reasons. The statewide Oregon study of 1987 and 1988 by Dr. Maralee Mayberry, a professor at the University of Nevada at the time, identified four categories of homeschoolers: religious, New Age, sociorelational, and academic (Mayberry 212). The former two – religious and New Age – relate to the politically-based reasons for homeschooling.
In the comparable Utah study by then-Assistant Professor of Education J. Gary Knowles at the University of Michigan identified four important issues surrounding homeschooling: control, protection, self-actualization, and closeness (Mayberry 213). As with the categories in the Oregon study, the first two are political reasons. In a collaborative project to compare the results and interpret the implications of their separate Oregon and Utah studies, Mayberry and Knowles suggested that homeschooling “may be a symbolic response to an increasingly differentiated, rationalized, and secularized school system” (Maybe 221).
So far we have verified for ourselves that objections to the political and moral atmosphere of the public school have urged many parents to home-educate their children. The question then becomes not what moral and political issues families have with the public school, but why those issues are important.
What harm does learning about X instead of Y inflict, if any? What impact does learning through a lens that differs from the family’s have? Even if public schools don’t cover the matters that parents would like, could parents not complete that task themselves at home?
In the elementary and secondary grades, authority figures like teachers hold considerable influence in shaping the worldviews of children. While parents can and do teach their children their family’s philosophies, beliefs, etc., the fact that children spend most of their waking hours in the classroom or completing homework for the classroom makes it clear that a public school plays a significant role in the task.
Nationally recognized educator and speaker Rick Ackerly acknowledges in an article on this topic, “The culture of school, itself, is the main vehicle for teaching people how to behave – at least as important as the home or the church” (1). Regardless of efforts at home to instill the religious, philosophical, and/or political beliefs that a family holds, the culture of school might contradict them. The curriculum of a school might have greater merit, in a student’s mind, than the word of a parent.
The adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2009 sparked grand controversy among conservative parents, who accused the government of controlling what their children learned. This accusation is inaccurate given that the federal government itself cannot legally create national standards or curricula and that the standards do not force a set curriculum. However, loopholes since Common Core’s passage have given some credence to the claims of centralization.
In a past essay on CCSS, I remark on these loop holes:
“[These loopholes include] the Race to the Top grants available for states that adopted college- and career-preparatory standards, i.e. CCSS, and the creation of standardized testing in English and math through two consortia that the Department of Education assesses. In the private sector, Pearson Education’s relationship with the Gates Foundation, a Common Core sponsor, and its own generous monetary support has pushed the Common Core State Standards to the realm of Common Core Central Curriculum, as Pearson Education has risen in prominence as publisher for textbooks and other educational materials aligned with the Common Core.” (Lindner 9-10).
In his review on the state of public education in the early 20th century, J.D. candidate Courtenay Moran at the University of Illinois attests to the subtle ability of schools to imbue certain beliefs in the curriculum. Moran follows the trend of state oversight of education from the 16th and 17th centuries, when education morphed from a private activity to a public concern, to the mid-1800s and early-1900s, when the state funded public school systems to homogenize and assimilate new immigrants (1073, 1074, 1075). In these years, anti-Catholic sentiments molded the curriculum of the new public schools, and after World War I “xenophobic hysteria”, especially against Germans, did (Moran 1075).
The political and moral reasons for homeschooling are important because the concerns are real to many. In the same way that the public school system of the early 20th century sought the homogenization of the student body, the subtle centralization of the American public school today may work against the best objectives of parents for their children.
This post was slightly edited on January 13, 2021 to make the language more inclusive of different types of homeschooling families.