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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

The Civic Perils of Homeschooling

Homeschooling may satisfy parents' desire to customize educationfor their children, but such customization reflects a consumermentality in education and potentially dilutes active democraticcitizenship.

Just 10 years ago, educating a child at home was illegal in severalstates. Today, not only is homeschooling legal everywhere, it's booming.Homeschooling is probably the fastest-growing segment of the educationmarket, expanding at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year (Lines, 2000a). Morechildren are homeschooled than attend charter schools. More children arehomeschooled than attend conservative Christian academies.
And it's not just left-wing unschoolers and right-wing religiousfundamentalists who are keeping their children at home. Taking advantage ofthe Internet and other new technologies, more middle-of-the- roadsuburbanites are homeschooling, too. Time andNewsweek have featured homeschooling on their covers.The U.S. Congress passed a resolution in 1999 declaring the week of September19 to be National Home Education Week. Homeschooling has gone mainstream.
In response to the rise of homeschooling, policymakers and public schooladministrators and teachers need to consider what makes homeschooling sopopular. Chief among the many reasons to homeschool is the ability tocustomize a child's education at home.

Customizing Education at Home

The ability to custom-tailor an education for their children is often themotivation for parents to homeschool. No other education arrangement offersthe same freedom to arrange an education designed for an individual student;in homeschools, parents are responsible not only for selecting what theirchildren will learn, but when, how, and with whom they will learn. In thissense, homeschooling represents the apex of customization in education.
But is this customization always a good thing? From the standpoint of theparents who choose to homeschool, it surely is; they wouldn't be doingit otherwise, especially in light of the considerable energy and time itrequires of them. But considered from the standpoint of democraticcitizenship, the opportunity to customize education through homeschoolingisn't an unadulterated good. Customizing education may permit schoolingto be tailored for each individual student, but total customization alsothreatens to insulate students from exposure to diverse ideas and people andthereby to shield them from the vibrancy of a pluralistic democracy. Theserisks are perhaps greatest for homeschoolers. To understand why, we needfirst to understand more about the current practice of homeschooling.

Homeschooling Today

Homeschooling is more than an education alternative. It is also a socialmovement (Stevens, 2001; Talbot, 2001). In 1985, approximately 50,000children were being educated at home. In 2002, at least 1 million childrenare being homeschooled, with some estimates pegging the number at 2 million,an increase of 20- or 40-fold. (It's symptomatic of the unregulatedenvironment of homeschooling that precise figures on the number ofhomeschoolers are impossible to establish.) Depending on the estimate youchoose (Bielick, Chandler, & Broughman, 2001; Lines, 2000a),homeschoolers account for 2–4 percent of the school-goingpopulation.
Homeschooling parents are politically active. Former PennsylvaniaRepresentative Bill Goodling, the former chair of the House Committee onEducation and the Workforce, has called homeschoolers “the mosteffective education lobby on Capitol Hill” (as cited in Golden, 2000).Homeschoolers have established both local and national networks for lobbyingpurposes and for offering curricular support to one another. Several nationalorganizations, led by the Home School Legal Defense Association, promotehomeschooling. Even the former Secretary of Education, William Bennett, is afan—he has created a for-profit company called K12, the purpose of which isto supply curricular and testing materials to homeschoolers.
But who homeschools, and why? Two main groups of homeschoolers haveemerged, both of which raise difficult questions about customization.
The larger of the groups is the Christian right. Although homeschoolinghas become a much more diverse enterprise in the past 10 years, its strengthas a social movement and the majority of its practitioners are conservativeChristians. Precise data are scarce, but researchers tend to agree thatwhereas homeschools of the 1970s “reflected a liberal, humanistic,pedagogical orientation,” the majority of homeschools in the 1980s and1990s “became grounds of and for ideological, conservative, religiousexpressions of educational matters” (Carper, 2000, p. 16). Today, mostparents choose to educate their children at home because they believe thattheir children's moral and spiritual needs will not be met incampus-based schools.
Those who educate their children at home for religious reasons oftenobject to the secular bias of public schools. By keeping their children athome, they seek to provide a proper religious education free from the damninginfluences of secularism and pop culture. These homeschoolers wish to avoidthe public school at all costs.
The second group practices a different kind of homeschooling. They seekpartnerships with public schools to avail themselves of resources, support,guidance, and extracurricular activities that they could not otherwise obtainor provide at home. For these parents, some participation in public schoolsis desirable.
Various mechanisms have emerged to allow homeschooled students to connecton a partial basis with the public school system. In California, for example,approximately 10 percent of the charter schools serve students whose primarylearning is at home (Lines, 2000b). Other districts have set up“virtual” academies online to aid in the enrollment ofhomeschoolers. Still other school districts permit students to attend someclasses but not others and to participate in extracurricular activities(Rothstein, 2002). Finally, a few public school districts have set uphomeschooling resource centers, staffed by public school teachers andprofessional curriculum developers, that homeschooling parents can use attheir convenience.

Democratic Citizenship and Customization

Each kind of homeschooler—the family who teaches the child solely athome and the family who seeks some inter-action with the public schoolsystem—is practicing customization in education. For the first,parents can tailor the education environment to their own convictions and totheir beliefs about what their child's needs and interests are. For thesecond, parents can select the aspects of the public system they and theirchild want, creating an overall program designed for their child.
What's to worry about either kind of customization? Let me put thematter quite simply. Customizing a child's education throughhomeschooling represents the victory of a consumer mentality withineducation, suggesting that the only purpose that education should serve is toplease and satisfy the preferences of the consumer. Education, in my view, isnot a consumption item in the same sense as the food we select from thegrocery store.
Many homeschoolers would surely protest here that their energetic effortsto overcome numerous obstacles to educate their children at home aremotivated by a desire to shield their children from rampant consumerism andto offer their children a moral environment in which they learn deeper andmore important values. No doubt this is true.
But my point is not that homeschooling parents are inculcating in theirchildren a consumer mentality. My point is that many homeschooling parentsview the education of their children as a matter properly under their controland no one else's. They feel entitled to “purchase” theeducation environment of their children from the marketplace of learningmaterials, with no intermediary between them and their child. The first kindof homeschooler actually does purchase learning materials for the home. Thesecond kind of homeschooler treats the public school system as a provider ofservices and activities from which parents choose what they want, as if itwere a restaurant with an extensive menu.
And this attitude is the crucial point. Homeschooling is the apogee ofparental control over a child's education, where no other institutionhas a claim to influence the schooling of the child. Parents serve as theonly filter for a child's education, the final arbiters of what getsincluded and what gets excluded.
  • In a diverse, democratic society, part of able citizenship is tocome to respect the fact that other people will have beliefs and convictions,religious and otherwise, that conflict with one's own. Yet from thestandpoint of citizenship, these other people are equals. And students mustlearn not only that such people exist, but how to engage and deliberate withthem in the public arena. Thus, students should encounter materials, ideas,and people that they or their parents have not chosen or selected inadvance.
  • Citizenship is the social glue that binds a diverse people together.To be a citizen is to share something in common with one's fellowcitizens. As the legal scholar Sunstein (2001) has argued, a hetero-geneoussociety without some shared experiences and common values has a difficulttime addressing common problems and risks social fragmentation. Schooling isone of the few remaining social institutions—or civicintermediaries—in which people from all walks of life have a common interest and in whichchildren might come to learn such common values as decency, civility, andrespect.
  • Part of being a citizen is exercising one's freedom. Indeed,the freedoms that U.S. citizens enjoy are a democratic inheritance that wetoo often take for granted. But to be free is not simply to be free fromcoercion or constraint. Democratic freedom requires the free construction andpossible revision of beliefs and preferences. To become free, students mustbe exposed to the vibrant diversity of a democratic society so that theypossess the liberty to live a life of their own design.
Because homeschooled students receive highly customized educations,designed usually to accord with the preferences of parents, they are leastlikely in principle to be exposed to materials, ideas, and people that havenot been chosen in advance; they are least likely to share common educationexperiences with other children; and they are most likely to have a narrowhorizon of experiences, which can curtail their freedom. Although highlycustomized education for students may produce satisfied parents as consumers,and even offer excellent academic training to the student, it is a loss froma civic perspective.

Civic Perils

I do not argue that homeschooling undermines citizenship in all cases. Onthe contrary, I have elsewhere defended the practice of homeschooling, whenproperly regulated (Reich, 2002). Many homeschooling parents are deeplycommitted to providing their children with an education that introduces themto a great diversity of ideas and people. And for those homeschoolers whoseek partnerships with public schools, their children do participate incommon institutions with other children. I do not intend to condemnhomeschooling wholesale, for I have met many homeschooled students who arebetter prepared for democratic citizenship than the average public schoolstudent.
My claim is about the potential civic perils of a homeschooled education,where schooling is customizable down to the tiniest degree. Customization,and, therefore, homeschooling, seem wonderful if we think about education asa consumption item. But schooling, from the time that public schools werefounded until today, has served to cultivate democratic citizenship. Andthough this may be a largely forgotten aim, as many have argued, we shouldnot allow a new consumer mentality to become the driving metaphor for theeducation of children.

Bielick, S., Chandler, K., & Broughman, S. (2001, July 31).Home schooling in the United States: 1999 (NCES2001-033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Carper, J. C. (2000, April). Pluralism to establishment todissent: The religious and educational context of home schooling.Peabody Journal of Education, 75(1, 2),8–19.

Golden, D. (2000, April 24). Homeschoolers learn how to gainclout inside the beltway. Wall Street Journal, p.A1.

Lines, P. (2000a, Summer). Home schooling comes of age.Public Interest, 140, 74–85.

Lines, P. (2000b, April). When homeschoolers go to school: Apartnership between families and schools. Peabody Journal ofEducation, 75(1, 2), 159–186.

Reich, R. (2002). Bridging liberalism andmulticulturalism in American education. Chicago: University of ChicagoPress.

Rothstein, R. (2002, January 2). Augmenting a home-schooleducation. New York Times, p. B11.

Stevens, M. (2001). Kingdom of children: Cultureand controversy in the home-schooling movement. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press.

Sunstein, C. (2001)., NJ: Princeton University Press.

Talbot, M. (2001, November). The new counterculture.Atlantic Monthly, 288(4), 136–143.

Rob Reich has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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