Spurrier: Homeschooling Is on the Rise. What Should That Teach Education Leaders About Families’ Preferences?

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This fall marks the third school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. School systems scrambled in spring 2020 to pivot to remote instruction, and while most schools began the 2020-21 school year with remote instruction, more students returned to in-person classes as the year progressed. Many feel that we’re getting closer to turning the corner now that in-person instruction is the default option for most schools at the start of the current school year. They are asking: Is this the year when school finally looks something like normal again?

But hope for a return to normal is fading quickly in some parts of the country. The analytics firm Burbio has already identified more than 1,400 school closures across 35 states due to COVID-related outbreaks. Many more schools have sent students home to quarantine. Add in increasing tensions over mask requirements, vaccine mandates and culture war issues resulting in caustic crowds at school board meetings and dozens of recall efforts, and families have had their lives upended in ways few could have imagined 18 months ago.

That school systems have struggled to adapt to these unfamiliar conditions is understandable. But for millions of families, their willingness to tolerate institutional sclerosis in their children’s education is starting to wear thin.

Instead of focusing on getting schools back to a pre-pandemic normal, education leaders ought to look at addressing the needs of the kids and families who are being underserved by the nation’s K-12 system. In our new report, The Overlooked, my co-authors and I estimate that 11 million students have not had their needs met by K-12 schools since the start of the pandemic — roughly 1 in 5 of America’s schoolchildren. Over the past 18 months, the rate of families moving their children to a new school increased by approximately 50 percent; hundreds of thousands of children who should have enrolled in school in fall 2020 did not; and the families of approximately 1.5 million children are frustrated with the lack of a remote schooling option this fall.

The best way for policymakers and education leaders to understand where they are falling short is to take a close look at how families have changed their educational decision-making. This starts with looking at how families are voting with their feet.

While traditional public schools and private schools lost enrollment from 2019-20 to 2020-21, there were gains in public charter schools, microschools, learning pods and the biggest enrollment winner: homeschooling. Data suggest that approximately 1.2 million families switched to homeschooling last academic year, bringing the total number of homeschooled students to 3.1 million. According to the Census Bureau, Black and Hispanic families now have the highest estimated rates of homeschooling, at 16% and 12%, respectively.

What might explain this growth? Polling data reveal that homeschooling decisions are driven by a combination of factors, including concerns over safety, a preference for more flexibility and a desire for more individualized instruction.

Shifting parental preferences may also play a role. A recent analysis of survey data revealed a spike in the percentage of mothers who would prefer to not work for pay. Twenty-seven percent of mothers last fall said they would prefer to not work — an 8 percentage point increase from summer 2019. Some parents are able to homeschool while managing full-time work schedules, but if more parents withdraw from the workforce, it may increase their capacity to pursue homeschooling for their children.

School system leaders and education policymakers would be wise to consider how they can better meet the needs of families that became homeschoolers in the past 18 months. What changes could they make to provide schooling options that could offer the right mix of COVID-19 safety measures and more individualized instruction for students that these families would prefer? What kinds of policy and systemic support — such as instructional materials, specialist services and extracurricular activities — can they deliver to families that decide to stick with homeschooling for the long term?

It’s tempting to assume that parental preferences will revert to the pre-pandemic mean, which is clearly a possibility. But for the first time in modern history, families have explored and adopted different approaches to schooling on an unforeseen scale. Their experiences during the pandemic have changed how they prioritize what their kids need for their physical, social, emotional and academic development.

The result, even absent a sustained advocacy campaign, has been a sizable increase in smaller-scaled learning options, like homeschooling, pods and microschools. If these retain some of the enrollment they gained during the pandemic, or education advocates and philanthropy jump more fully into the fray, it could have ripple effects on funding that resonate throughout the K-12 landscape.

The best way for education leaders and policymakers to prepare for that possibility is to focus on the most important question right now: “How can we better meet the needs of children and families?”

Alex Spurrier is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in the policy and evaluation practice area.

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