Which would you guess educate more K-12 students, charter schools or homeschools? The answer is that they're pretty much neck and neck. Charter school enrollment is growing fast, but so is the number of parents choosing to educate their children at home.
According to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocate for school choice, charter school enrollment in 2009 reached 1.5 million, expected to grow to 1.7 million by the 2010-2011 school year. That's reaching 3 percent of the 55 million K-12 population.
As for homeschool enrollment, that's a little harder to measure, since the kids aren't all in one place to survey, not all states require homeschoolers to register, and not all homeschooling parents respond to government surveys. Still, a 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that in 2007 there were 1.5 million homeschooled students, up from 890,000 in 1999 and 1.1 million in 2003. At that rate of growth, we might estimate that by now there are 1.7 million to 1.9 million students being educated at home.
Also of interest are parents' stated reasons for choosing to educate their children at home. 88% of parents cite a concern about the school environment, while 83% (a growing number) cite a desire to provide religious or moral instruction. For 36% of answering parents, this is the "most important" reason for choosing to homeschool. Academic reasons were important for 73% but most important for only 17%. Children's health problems or special needs were important for 32%, down quite a bit from 2003, and this category was most important only for 6% of students.
55% of homeschooling families have two parents of whom one is working; median household income of these families in 2007 was around $55,000. Thirty percent of homeschooling parents have a bachelor's degree (similar to national levels of American adults), while 21 percent have a graduate or professional degree (versus 11% of American adults).
Homeschool advocates often cite statistics "proving" that homeschooled students outperform students in the public schools. As researcher Robert Kunzman points out in his very useful informational website, we don't have the data to justify these claims. Homeschool families who volunteer to share test scores and other achievement measures are a self-selected group; poor performers are unlikely to offer themselves for study, and there have been no studies with random selection of homeschooled students. Still, it's clear that large numbers of homeschooled students perform very well on tests, in college, and in life.
My own prediction is that homeschooling numbers will continue to rival charter school numbers for at least the next several years. The growing availability of online resources and communities will make it easier for parents to find affordable tools and resources to work with their children. Distrust in public institutions appears to be growing, while public willingness to spend more for better schools for everybody's children is likely to suffer in the current deficit-fighting climate.
As to whether an increase in homeschooling will further divide society, that's a matter for concern and study but not for panic. It's true that parents can narrow a child's vision and keep him or her from rubbing shoulders with those who live in different circumstances or who have a different view, for a while. But in today's connected world, that isolation is unlikely to persist into adulthood. We should also take a long view: after all, through most of world history and much of this country's history, most children learned at home.