The COVID-19 pandemic led to a new experience in many U.S. households: homeschooling.
When schools first closed in the spring of 2020 and students moved to online instruction, many parents and caretakers became more integral to their children’s education, providing technical assistance, help with independent coursework and watchful eyes so kids maintained focus during Zoom classes. As most students have stayed at least partially online this school year, families have also gotten a closer look at the content of their children’s education than they did when schooling happened only in the school building.
For some families, the pandemic experience may have contributed to a decision to homeschool their children. Some families may have been disappointed with the quality of online instruction or with the curriculum they became more exposed to during this time. Other families may have appreciated the increased time spent working with and educating their children. Still others may have chosen to pull their children out of school because of public health decisions made at the school; these include families concerned about students’ exposure to the virus in open school buildings or about students spending hours a day in front of a screen in schools with remote-only instruction.
No matter the reasons, data indicates that enrollment in public schools and some private schools is down, especially among early learners, and the number of students being homeschooled is up. According to a fall Education Week survey, as many as 1 in 10 families whose students were enrolled in school in the spring of 2020 planned to homeschool their students for at least part of the current school year. Documented enrollment drops bear out this survey data, and evidence indicates that increases in the rates of homeschooling this year have been higher among Black families and low-income families. It remains to be seen whether the growth in homeschooling will last beyond the pandemic.
Legislative Action on Homeschooling
Along with the increase in families deciding to homeschool, legislatures have been considering homeschooling bills this session. In at least 19 states, bills have been introduced that would repeal homeschooling regulations, provide homeschoolers access to public school resources or state assessments, or provide funding or tax credits to families that homeschool. At least 24 states have considered legislation that would expand or create education savings account programs, a school choice mechanism that can offer state support to homeschooling families. These school choice efforts are discussed in a recent NCSL magazine article.
Bills affecting state homeschooling regulation cut in two directions, with some easing regulations on homeschooling families and others imposing new ones. For example, Arkansas HB 1429 would repeal a mandatory two-week waiting period for families withdrawing their child from public school, and West Virginia SB 366 would remove a requirement for the state board of education to set guidelines for home education. Measures increasing regulation include New Jersey AB 1737, which would require submission of student work portfolios for homeschooled students, bills in New York and New Jersey that would require parental notification of intent to withdraw students from public school, and a West Virginia bill that would prohibit students in unsafe home environments from being homeschooled.
In at least 13 states, legislators are considering bills that would increase homeschooled students’ access to public school resources like athletics, activities, academic opportunities, assessments and scholarship programs. Bills in New Mexico and Tennessee make homeschooled students eligible for scholarship programs at in-state higher education institutions, and legislation in South Carolina and Arkansas would require school districts to make the same testing opportunities offered to public school students, such as Advanced Placement and college entrance exams, available to homeschooled students. And in at least 11 states, legislatures are evaluating measures that would make homeschooled students eligible to participate in athletics and activities at their local public schools. The laws, sometimes named in honor of the formerly homeschooled Florida Gators and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, have been enacted in at least 22 states and are a major priority for homeschool advocacy groups, which say barriers to participation prevent families from homeschooling.
Other measures would open funding opportunities to homeschooled families, particularly through tax credits and deductions. Some of these bills, like those introduced in Colorado and Virginia, make tax credits available to homeschooling families and families sending their children to private school. Others, like those in New York and New Jersey, would provide income tax credits equal to demonstrated homeschooling expenses. Utah SB 162 grows directly out of the pandemic experience, offering nonrefundable tax credits for educational expenses during a public health emergency.
Impact of Trends, Measures Uncertain
Educational experts have hotly debated the impact that student school withdrawals and homeschooling measures may have on student success, public schools and equity. Many districts believe that most homeschooling students will return once classes are again offered in person, full time. Some homeschooling advocates, on the other hand, believe that if states enact measures like those being considered to decrease regulation, increase resource access and provide funding, families will continue homeschooling in the long term due to its individualization and flexibility. Policymakers and district leaders are anxiously awaiting more data on these questions, as the results will impact the funding that districts receive in the next school year.
In the pandemic, low-income families and Black families have been overrepresented among those withdrawing their children from school. Some see this trend as an indication that families are responding to under-resourced, ineffective and unsafe school conditions and a system lacking trust between families and educators. Others worry that students are withdrawing to work during the economic downturn or are simply disengaging from the educational system altogether. In a recent NCSL virtual meeting, Iheoma Iruka, a research professor and director of the Early Childhood Health and Racial Equity Program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, argued that for Black families in particular, the pandemic has exposed schools that do not meet their students’ educational and cultural needs. By opting out, she said, these families demonstrate the power they have to change and improve the educational system.
The homeschooling legislation being considered may, according to advocates, allow families who previously had not considered homeschooling, or did not have the resources to homeschool their children, to provide a home education that meets their unique needs. Detractors contend that legislation promoting homeschooling drains public schools of the resources needed to rebuild and improve and may result in some students receiving a lower quality of education than they would at a traditional school. Both sides agree, however, that the decisions legislators make on this issue will have a significant impact on students’ educational futures.
Benjamin Olneck-Brown is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.