Why are growing numbers of Minnesota youngsters being homeschooled?

Why are some families doing home schooling, how many are doing it, and is it a good idea? Several readers responded to a recent column on district and charter enrollment by asking these questions.

First, why? Professor Milton Gaither of Messiah College in Pennsylvania responded, “The most recent (2007) National Center for Education Statistics data http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009030.pdf has the top three reasons for homeschooling being first, a concern about school environment (bullying, lack of morals, etc.); second, a parental desire to provide religious or moral instruction; and third, dissatisfaction with the academic instruction at the public school.”

Beth Balmanno, president of Minnesota Homeschoolers’ Alliance believes, “Although each situation is unique, most parents turn to homeschooling because, ultimately, they want what is best for their kids. Perhaps their special needs students aren’t getting their needs met; maybe their gifted child isn’t being challenged; or maybe they want to provide their child with the ability to follow their passions and interests, free of an institutionalized schedule.”

Minnesota Department of Education officials Cindy Jackson and Carol Hokenson supplied state statistics. Here’s a brief, partial summary of their records, including school years and numbers of Minnesota students being “homeschooled.”

1987–88: 2,322

1997–98: 13,081

2006–2007: 17,621

2011–12: 16,081

These figures showed an increase of more than 15,000 from 1987–88 to 2006–2007, and then a modest decline. Ms. Balmanno wrote, “The increase in homeschooling from the 1980s to the 2000s is a reflection of two things: legislation made it easier for families to homeschool, and homeschooling became more “mainstream.” The reduction in recent years is directly related to the increase of online schools. Although an alternative to brick-and-mortar education, students enrolled in online schools do not count as homeschooled students.”

Professor Gaither agrees with her. He wrote, “Some states have seen declines since the mid 2000s and yes, indeed, those declines frequently correlate with the expansion of online public schools (cybercharters being the most conspicuous example).”

Though students being educated via a public “cyber-school” or via “on-line learning” are not counted in the homeschooling figures, they clearly ARE doing some of their learning at home.

The southeastern Minnesota school district of Houston has adapted to the opportunity that homeschooling provides. They’ve created “online” learning opportunities for students throughout Minnesota. Justin Treptow, head of Houston’s on-line program, told me that the district enrolled more than 1,600 full-time online students last year, and 185 part-time.

This is not an argument that homeschooling or “online learning” is the best option for everyone. Not every family does a great job with this, and some on-line learning programs have promised more than they delivered.

Ms. Balmanno wrote, “It would be hard to quantify achievements of homeschoolers because families’ perceptions of “achievement” are wide and varied. Do homeschool graduates go on to attend college? Absolutely. Do homeschoolers achieve perfect SAT scores and win academic contests and excel at sports? Certainly. However, there is no clearinghouse for this type of information. Professor Gaither has concluded that it is “impossible to summarize or generalize the impact of homeschooling on students.”

Over the last few years, I’ve read deeply moving essays by suburban and rural students who are learning “online.” Some describe bullying that they experienced in large secondary schools, and the far more comfortable environment they experience by learning at home, via on-line learning. Others describe a medical issue, either for themselves for a close family member, which made it difficult or impossible to leave the home for many months. They praise the home school/on-line option, as one youngster wrote, “just right for me.” — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan, a parent of three and formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected])