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Home Schooling

History, Legal Background, Legal Trends, Effects, Future Implications

The term home schooling refers to the practice of parents educating a child at home, rather than in a conventional public or private school setting. These children would otherwise be enrolled in elementary or secondary school. The parent responsible for home schooling generally does not work and is rarely a trained teaching professional. Primary concerns for most home schoolers are strengthening family bonds and developing religious values. Technological innovations in the late twentieth century made home schooling an increasingly manageable proposition, as the availability of personal computers and the Internet permitted families to access computer-driven instruction, multimedia resources, and far-flung support networks. Families provide home schooling in many different ways, with tremendous variation in curricula, teaching methods, and technology, and in the amount of peer interaction that children experience. Some home-schooling parents bring their children together for group outings and field trips to provide enhanced socialization, while others have formed cooperative schools or charter schools to support their efforts.

The estimated number of home-schooled children is unreliable, due largely to uneven record-keeping. However, in a 1999 report, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that more than 850,000 children were home schooled in the United States, and scholars purport that the population is increasing at an annual rate of between 7 to 15 percent. Researchers suggest that home educators are generally married couples with one nonworking spouse and more than two children and that their median income is generally comparable to that of all families with school-age children. In approximately one-quarter of home-schooling families, at least one parent is a licensed teacher; however, this is rarely the parent who is specifically responsible for the home schooling. The small amount of existent data suggests that very few minority students are educated through home schooling, and that three-quarters of home-schooling families are primarily motivated by religious concerns.


From the colonial period through the mid-1800s, education was generally delivered through loosely-structured community schools. In the nineteenth century, in efforts that began in the northeast, reformers increasingly came to view public schools as a vital means of "Americanizing" the nation's growing immigrant population and as an opportunity to foster a common American culture. This effort gained momentum after Massachusetts became the first state to adopt a compulsory education law in 1852. The law required parents to send their children to the state's increasingly systematic public schools. In the early twentieth century, public schooling became an increasingly central component of American culture. Growing numbers of students attended public school and Progressive reformers promoted education as a means of social betterment. As formal public schooling expanded during the first half of the twentieth century, home education became virtually obsolete.

However, by the 1960s, some education critics had begun to voice concerns that public schools were preaching alien values, failing to adequately educate children, or were adopting unhealthy approaches to child development. As a result, a "deschooling movement" took root in the 1960s and 1970s. Critics of public schooling primarily voiced two distinct ideologies, both emphasizing child-centered learning. Liberal critics of public schooling believed that schools did not adequately respect children as individuals, while conservative critics argued that public schools undermined traditional values.

Starting in the early 1980s, increasing numbers of parents chose to educate their children at home as a growing number of states relaxed their compulsory attendance laws to permit home schooling. Previously, parents who home schooled their children were in violation of compulsory attendance and truancy laws, and were therefore subject to legal action. While Nevada (1956) and Utah (1957) were the only states with home-schooling legislation prior to 1982, thirty-four states passed enabling legislation between 1982 and 1993. By 1998, under the pressure of an increasingly active home-schooling movement, all fifty states had passed home-school laws specifying attendance, subject, teacher, testing, and record-keeping requirements for home educators.

In 2002 state laws regulating home schooling vary widely regarding such matters as teacher licensure, testing, compulsory curriculum, and required paperwork. Some states impose exacting regulations on home schooling, while others legislate few requirements. Nine states place no restrictions on parents' rights to home school, providing the legal option for any parent who is interested. Ten other states simply require parents to notify the state when a child is being home schooled. On the other hand, twenty states demand that parents provide test scores or professional assessment to monitor the student's progress. Finally, eleven states impose stringent requirements that mandate that parents provide the state with test scores or professional assessment to measure the student's achievement, in addition to other requirements such as regular home visits or professional training.

Legal Background

American courts have asserted that parents possess significant authority to direct the education of their children. Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) was the first case to protect parental educational authority against the incursion of state legislation, establishing a legal precedent when the U.S. Supreme Court found that states may not prohibit foreign language education if schools offer it and parents desire it. Parents' fundamental right "to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control" was etched more firmly in Pierce v. Society of Seven Sisters (1925). The Pierce decision stated that parents should be allowed to choose the type of school their children attend, public or private, as Oregon law could not require that parents send their children to public schools. In a 1972 ruling crucial to the home-schooling cause, the Supreme Court held in Wisconsin v. Yoder that parents had the right to supersede compulsory education laws if the laws unduly impeded religious freedom. The Court ruled that it was permissible for Amish parents to remove their children from school at age twelve to maintain their way of life and exercise their religious freedom.

Although the courts have protected the rights of parents, they have also defended the right of states to require and extensively regulate educational instruction. Courts have ruled that if a state exempts home schoolers from compulsory attendance laws it is entitled to regulate their activities. States have the right to impose "reasonable" standards on home schoolers. These may include regulations as invasive as administering achievement tests to monitor students' progress (Murphy v. State of Arkansas, 1988). While most state laws include such requirements, enforcement is often sporadic due to the decentralized nature of home schooling and the lack of established overseeing bodies.

Over the course of time, several states have refused to allow home instruction on the grounds that it would stunt the social development of children and would prevent them from living normal, productive lives. The courts have determined that states are within their rights to make such determinations (Knox v. O'Brien, 1950). States may mandate that children must attend school because of the interaction it provides with their peers and the exposure it provides to different types of people (State v. Edging-ton, 1983).

Legal Trends

In the late 1990s, the parents of home-schooled children began suing schools districts that denied requests for supplemental services, classes, extracurricular activities, and additional services such as lab science instruction that cannot be feasibly provided at home. However, the courts have not mandated that districts provide such additional services. In Swanson v. Guthrie Independent School District (1998), a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a school board may deny home-schooled children the right to attend public school part-time. Previously, the courts had held in Bradstreet v. Sobol (1996) that school districts could require students to be enrolled in public schools in order to be eligible to participate in interscholastic sports.


Although no randomized field trials have been conducted, some preliminary research suggests that children who are home schooled may outperform their counterparts in public or private schools. However, given the variety of home-school settings and the uneven nature of preliminary research, it is not yet possible to reach any meaningful conclusions regarding the effectiveness of home schooling. Families who practice home schooling are often different in significant ways than families who do not. These differences, including higher levels of education, larger family size, and divergent child-rearing practices, make comparisons problematic. Moreover, it is advocates of home schooling who conduct of the research on the subject; this raises questions as to the validity and reliability of findings. The largest and most comprehensive as of 2001, conducted by the National Home Education Research Institute, examined over five thousand home-schooled students' scores on national standardized achievement tests for the 1994 through 1995 school year, and found that children who were home schooled outperformed their peers on standardized assessments.

Future Implications

In the fall of 2000, Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, became the first postsecondary institution intended primarily to serve students who had been schooled at home. Of the college's first class of ninety students, eighty had been home schooled. Patrick Henry College's curriculum has a moral focus comparable to many home schoolers' early education and values, and emphasizes traditional Christian values. The college is designed to address the typical challenges that many home schoolers face, as these students do not possess conventional educational records such as transcripts and may not be comfortable with their altered learning environment.

Home schooling poses a radical challenge to the centuries-long project of American public education. It raises important questions about how to balance the rights of family and community, of individual and state. There are no simple answers to these complex legal and ethical questions, and it is unclear the extent to which home schooling will transform educational practice in years to come.


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HOME SCHOOL LEGAL DEFENSE ASSOCIATION. 2001. "The Home School Court Report." <www.hslda.org/courtreport/v17n1/v17N11.asp>.

NATIONAL HOME EDUCATION RESEARCH INSTITUTE. 2000. "Facts on Home Schooling by the NHERI." <www.nheri.org/add.html>.

RUDNER, LAWRENCE M. 1999. "Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998." <http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v7n8/>.



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