The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Dramatic Growth of Homeschooling

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Most have noted the exponential growth that has occurred in the homeschooling movement in the last several years. What began as something of a fringe group has developed into one of the leading competitors in the educational marketplace. But what accounts for such a dramatic shift? Why have so many decided to take education back into the home?  Joseph F. Murphy of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College seeks to answer just this question by examining transitions in America’s “social, economic, and political fabric.”

In an overview of homeschooling that covers the span 1970-2010, Murphy posits that the usual reasons cited for the growth of homeschooling—biblical mandates for parental authority, coupled with “visible shortcomings of schools”—certainly have something to do with homeschooling’s growth. Such reasons cannot entirely explain homeschooling’s current popularity, however, as both justifications have existed for some decades if not centuries. “The pertinent question,” says Murphy, “is why now?  Why not in the 1930s or the 1960s, for example?”

Murphy’s conclusion is that “homeschooling is thriving because the essential pillars of society that made it anathema for over a century are being torn down and replaced with scaffolding that supports homeschooling.”  First, Murphy highlights, the growth in homeschooling was made possible by changes in the social landscape. In the transition to a new market economy, “schools could help socialize workers into accepting the emerging changes associated with the industrial revolution.”  This new system demanded “a corporate bureaucratic model of governance,” and then “a managerial state.”  Such transitions, however, have not proved to be eternally popular. Murphy highlights research demonstrating a “plummeting support for government,” which includes government-run schools, and also “a reassessment of the interests of public employees.”  Many parents, Murphy believes, have begun to distrust a bureaucratic system in which “public employees [i.e., teachers] . . . are the direct beneficiaries of government spending.” The unions/administration/political leadership relationship, in other words, has been cast into doubt.

Along with this dismantling of ideas crucial to the continuance of government schooling, however, the past 40 years has also seen what Murphy calls “the evolution of a new social context supporting homeschooling.”  Murphy outlines four “pillars” that he believes are crucial in this evolution: 1) “a recalibration of the locus of control”; 2) “a recasting of democracy, a replacement of representative government with more populist conceptions”; 3) “a rebalancing of the control equation in favor of lay citizens while diminishing the power of the state and educational professionals”; and 4) “[t]he ideology of choice.”  Murphy also outlines transitions in economic thinking, most important of which is the concept of “privatization”—“the transfer of activities from the public sector to the private sector [including] contracting out as well as reducing or discontinuing the provision of some goods and services by government.”  Homeschooling, with its focus on individual freedom of choice, is among the more radical types of privatization.

Murphy points out that an estimated two million U.S. children are homeschooled today, and that there are far more children being homeschooled than are schooled in either charter schools or private Christian schools. Given the social benefits and family strengthening that this important, historic mode of education represents, let us hope
for 40 more years of homeschool growth.

(Joseph F. Murphy, “Explaining the Change in Homeschooling, 1970-2010,” Home School Researcher 29.1 [Nov. 2013]: 1-13.)