Too Cool for School
As Nevada children return to school over the next few weeks, over 3,000 of their fellow students will not be joining them. Nevada’s home-school movement has grown considerably in recent years, from 365 students in 1987 to over 3,000 in 1996. As the public education system continues to perform poorly, many parents are taking it upon themselves to educate their children at home. Nationally, there are now an estimated 1.23 million home-school children. That figure is greater than the combined enrollments of public schools in Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.
Why Home School?
Parents who choose to educate their children at home do so for a variety of reasons. The majority continues to home school due to religious motivations, but more and more parents choose to teach their own children to avoid the bureaucratic, union-dominated public education system. Other parents have removed their children from private schools that did not have the means or ability to teach students with special needs. "There are many motives for opting out of traditional public or private education," writes mother Susan Olasky, who home schools her children in Austin, Texas. "But there is one result: a trend toward schooling that is decentralized, personal and entrepreneurial."
Supporters of home schooling say that decentralized nature is a major reason for the wide performance gap between public school students and students taught at home. The individual instruction and specialized curricula that can only come from home schooling has produced students that far outpace their counterparts in state-run learning institutions. "Programs that allow each child to maximize his or her own individual abilities lead to success," writes Home School Legal Defense Association President Michael P. Farris. His argument was recently confirmed when the most comprehensive study of home schooling at the national level—published by the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI)—found that students taught at home score significantly higher on standardized tests than public school students. Based on standardized tests given in the 1994-95 academic year, home-school students scored 30 to 37 percentile points higher. The difference between white and minority home-school students was minuscule—blacks scored the same in reading, and only 5 percentile points lower in math. This is in sharp contrast to the public education system, where blacks score 12 points lower in reading and 10 points lower in math. "Home schoolers," notes Dr. Brain Ray, the study’s author, "have been able to substantially eliminate the disparity between white and minority scores even when the samples are adjusted to reflect the exact same proportion of American Indians, Asians, blacks and Hispanics."
Home schooling has produced even more evidence that education spending has no correlation whatsoever with student performance. An average of $546 is spent on each home-school child. By comparison, public schools spend an average of $5,325 per student. Thus, home-school students score significantly higher on standardized tests than public school students, at 10 percent of the cost.
Laws and Regulations
At this point the federal government has no set policy regarding home schooling—each state has passed its own laws governing the practice. Some states have a high level of regulation, while others leave parents a great deal of latitude. Home schooling in Nevada has been legal for 50 years, but according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, the state has a high level of regulation. The Reno News & Review recently reported that Nevada home schoolers must "fill out a request to be exempted from the state’s compulsory attendance law. That form must include the methods parents plan to use to teach their children, a curriculum, list of materials, goals for each child in each subject and the days of each month they plan to hold school." Yet the NHERI study found that excessive regulations do not produce a better education for students taught at home—scores remained the same in all states, regardless of the level of regulation. "Legitimate questions may be asked," writes Ray, "concerning the purpose of such regulations since there is no apparent effect of student learning." Mark Brandly of the Ludwig von Mises Institute goes even further: "The only real function of regulations is to deter and hamstring parents."
But existing regulations will no doubt continue, and in many states, be strengthened, due to the efforts of what some call Big Education. "Educational policy in this country is the result of many years of lobbying by powerful education interests, whose dedication is not to children so much as protecting jobs, increasing benefits and ensuring political clout," writes education reform activist Helen Hegener. So naturally, officials of the powerful National Education Association teacher union oppose home schooling, since they cannot organize and extract dues from parents. The NEA has passed a number of resolutions opposed to home schooling in recent years. The battle has just begun. Brandly predicts a "relentless tug-of-war between the education elite and home-schooling parents" in the future. "The No. 1 political goal of home schoolers is quite modest," insists Farris. "We just want to be left alone."
As the nation’s public education system crumbles, parents will continue to avoid placing their children in public schools. But the growth of the home-schooling movement—and the resources now available to those who want to teach their children at home—has given parents an option beyond finding a private school. As long as the federal government does not meddle in home schooling and activists successfully push for rational regulations at the state level, more parents will conclude that instruction at home is in the best interest of their children. In Brandly’s words, "Until far-reaching educational deregulation takes place, and more options become available, home schooling helps limit the fallout from the failure of the public schools."
The Socialization Question
Since home-school students score much higher than their public school counterparts on standardized tests, many home-schooling foes have resorted to a socialization critique. Opponents allege children taught at home, isolated from their peers, do not interact with the community at large, and are thus unprepared to function properly in society upon reaching adulthood.
But there is increasing evidence to undermine the socialization criticism. The NHERI study found that home-school children participate in an average of 5.2 activities outside the home. Nearly 100 percent of students participate in two or more activities, including sports, volunteer work, and Sunday school. In many regions, home-school parents have banded together to form associations and cooperatives. Members of these organizations gather to attend cultural events, do community service and take field trips. "Home schoolers," writes Olasky, "are a social bunch."
Nevada parents interested in home schooling their children can contact Home Schools United in Las Vegas at (775) 870-9566 or Northern Nevada Home Schools in Reno at (775) 852-6647.
D. Dowd Muska is a research analyst at NPRI.