More parents are home-schooling. Some are never turning back
This is the Jan. 24, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.
It may be unsurprising to you that during the pandemic, the number of parents who’ve opted to home-school their kids has grown considerably. That fact certainly didn’t shock me, given the never-ending series of upheavals that schools and families have weathered over the past two years.
I don’t like to take trends at face value, though. There’s always something else behind the data that defies or deepens the obvious. So last week I set out to really understand why more families are pursuing parent-led education and whether they plan to stick with it.
I interviewed 10 families in Southern California about their choice to leave bricks-and-mortar schools, as well as several professionals who provide support to home-schoolers (you can read the full story here). Their rationales are diverse and the families span the socioeconomic and political spectrums: schools requiring too many COVID-19 safety protocols, or too few; the polarizing conversation around critical race theory; neurodivergent kids struggling with virtual instruction;and an overall waning faith in the public school system.
Who is choosing to home-school right now is just as fascinating as the why. Overall, the proportion of American families home-schooling at least one child grew from 5.4% in spring 2020 to 11.1% in fall 2021, according to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis. Meanwhile, the number of Black families choosing to home-school increased five-fold during that time, from 3.3% to 16.1%. (As I explain in my story, one partial explanation is that because of distance learning, Black parents for the first time got a front-row seat to the biased treatment that pervades so many classrooms and the education system overall.)
Anecdotally, though — and not something I’ve yet seen captured in any data — experts I interviewed noted that the pandemic pushed more parents who would never have otherwise home-schooled their children in that direction. As James Dwyer, a professor at William and Mary Law School and co-author of “Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice,” told me: a growing segment of “the mainstream middle class, well-educated and not on either political extreme, has been very disenchanted with public schools’ response to the pandemic.”
In a New Yorker story on the rise of Black home-schooling, writer Casey Parks explains that the modern home-schooling movement in the U.S. was sparked by Supreme Court decisions in the early ‘60s that banned school prayer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial segregation in public institutions. “Although homeschooling attracted some left-leaning hippies during the sixties and seventies,” Parks writes, “by the 1980s its most vocal and influential supporters were white Christian conservatives.” National homeschooling rates grew rapidly from 1999 to 2012 but remained steady at around 3.3% until 2020.
Now, a notable share of parents are pulling their kids out of public and private schools because they’ve lost confidence in the education system’s ability to meet their needs — intellectual, yes, but also emotional and spiritual, facets of being that have become more important to many people in these uncertain times. And as schools scramble to address the mounting mental health struggles of students, parents are watching schools fall woefully short. The system simply wasn’t built for this (though there are so many dedicated educators and scholars working tirelessly to shift this paradigm).
Many neurodivergent kids in particular have fallen through the cracks. I spoke with Molly Taylor, a mom who pulled her daughter from the Redondo Beach Unified School District in the winter of 2020. Reagan, now 8, was in the process of being assessed for dyslexia when the pandemic hit. Assessments were halted, and Reagan grew increasingly anxious sitting in front of a screen all day. It was hard, sometimes impossible, for her to learn. She cried often.
When Reagan was finally assessed at the end of the year, she was given a diagnosis of dyslexia and some accommodations through a 504 plan. In Taylor’s view, the school wasn’t able to do enough. She couldn’t bear to watch her daughter languish.
Taylor and her husband have the privilege of flexible schedules and both work from home. But home-schooling is still a sacrifice of time and resources, Taylor said.
“I know that Reagan will look back on her time with us and be happy we made this choice for her,” said Taylor, a former private school teacher. “I never wanted to homeschool my own kids, but I’m so glad we’ve done it.”
The pandemic has made it possible for more dual-income, middle-class households to pursue home-schooling. Penny Ross, a home-schooling consultant in L.A. County’s South Bay, said many more of her clients work full time when compared to pre-COVID-19.
“It’s still easier and cheaper for them to figure out how to make home-schooling work than to pay private school tuition,” Ross said.
This trend, if it continues, may contribute to a funding crisis in the public school system. Average daily attendance among California’s 6 million-plus K-12 students has decreased by 271,000 students since 2014, in large part because of plummeting birth rates (but surely exacerbated by an uptick in home-schooling). The state’s school funding is based on student enrollment and reduced by average daily attendance records, an attempt to hold schools accountable for chronic absenteeism.
Home-schooling is also largely unregulated in many states. In a 2020 interview, Harvard professor and child welfare expert Elizabeth Bartholet warned that the home-schooling system’s lack of checks and balances poses a threat to children and society. “I believe that the overwhelming majority of parents are capable of providing at least a minimal education at home without presenting any danger of abuse or neglect,” Bartholet said. But she noted a strong connection between home-schooling and maltreatment, as home-schooled kids are on average more isolated and aren’t around school teachers, who are trained to notice and report signs of abuse.
“Other dangers are that children are simply not learning basic academic skills or learning about the most basic democratic values of our society or getting the kind of exposure to alternative views that enables them to exercise meaningful choice about their future lives,” Bartholet said.
I can say that most of the parents I spoke with are thinking deeply about how to give their kids the most well-rounded education possible, as well as a variety of social opportunities. They see this choice as a reprioritization of values, an opportunity to really get to know their kids and nourish their natural curiosities.
“When we started to home-school I felt like I was doing something impactful for my family,” parent Crista Maldonado-Dunn told me. “The priority before was on what I could provide financially and I realized the currency we wanted to grow and cultivate was to be able to help our children learn and grow while building a healthy parent-child relationship.
“We felt the best way for our children to learn about the world and themselves was in the world itself,” she went on. “A classroom has limitations.”
An eventful week for California colleges
The California State University has added caste as a protected category in its systemwide anti-discrimination policy, reports my colleague Nani Sahra Walker. The policy is deeply meaningful to Dalit students of South Asian descent, who for years have fought to end caste discrimination they encountered on campuses across the state. Such discrimination is officially banned in India and other South Asian countries, but the practice is still pervasive in the region and among communities in the diaspora.
USC will allow its fraternities to host parties again in March — as long they abide by strict rules, which include posting security guards at stairs or hallways leading to bedrooms and mandated risk and sexual violence prevention trainings for all fraternity members. The new university policies follow allegations of sexual abuse and drugging at several USC fraternity houses.
An initiative at 45 state community colleges and universities will award $10,000 grants to up to 6,500 community-service-driven students through the new Californians for All College Corps fellowship, according to Times writer Colleen Shalby. The $60-million program aims to support Dreamers and students from low-income backgrounds who want to do meaningful volunteer work but face obstacles because they often must hold multiple jobs to support themselves or family.
Nearly 2,000 people have signed a petition calling on administrators at Stanford University to abandon their COVID-19 booster vaccine mandate for students. “We are not anti-booster or anti-vaccination,” wrote PhD student Monte Fischer, the petition’s author. “We are pro-bodily autonomy, and support the rights of Stanford students to evaluate the data and make their own medical choices.” More than 95% of Stanford’s students have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
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More COVID news
COVID cases are down in L.A. schools and attendance is up, Times education reporter Howard Blume reports. But that doesn’t mean things are anywhere near normal. Underlining that point: Starting today, students in Los Angeles Unified schools can no longer wear cloth masks, which studies have found to be less effective than medical-grade face coverings. Schools will provide masks to students who don’t have their own.
A state legislator is proposing to make COVID vaccinations mandatory for all school-age kids. “We need to make sure schools are safe so that all parents are comfortable sending their children to school,” said state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician whose legislation has strengthened oversight of vaccine exemptions in previous years. “And we want to keep schools open.”
What else we’re reading this week
A growing number of school districts in California are no longer tracking COVID-19 cases or sending exposure notifications home to parents because the Omicron variant is so pervasive. The shift is occurring after a tumultuous two weeks back with teacher and student sickouts, district-shuttered schools and frantic parents and staff searching for tests and upgraded masks. San Francisco Chronicle
At least 40 California school districts are or soon will require vaccinations for staff or students, or both, according to an analysis by CalMatters. Some of these policies are stricter than Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to require vaccination for all K-12 staff and students before the next school year. CalMatters
San Diego Unified has sent termination notices to 73 of its roughly 15,000 employees for failing to comply with the district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. San Diego Union-Tribune
The L.A. teachers’ union has a contract expiring in June, and its leaders believe there’s money to fund significant improvements in teacher pay and working conditions, including class size reductions and improved support for special education. “We have a historic opportunity to get the district to allocate the significant increase to the schools that our students deserve,” United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz said during a Facebook Live session. L.A. Daily News.
A sharp decline in the number of Americans going to college could cause countless negative impacts on society in the long run, including continued labor shortages, lower life expectancy and higher levels of divorce, according to researchers. The Washington Post
San Francisco is holding a special election on Feb. 15 to determine, among other things, whether to recall three members of the city’s school board — the same board that spent a crucial portion of the COVID-19 pandemic renaming 44 schools, an effort that was later overturned in court. San Francisco Chronicle.
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