Home Schooling Today Is Less Religious and More Diverse, Poll Finds

Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble
Savannah Bonilla helps her sons, Felyx, Cohen and Zander, on their assignments.

A pandemic-era boom has fundamentally changed the face of American home schooling, transforming a group that has for decades been dominated by conservative Christians into one that is more racially and ideologically diverse, a Washington Post-Schar School poll finds.

Rather than religion, home-schoolers today are likely to be motivated by fear of school shootings, anxiety over bullying and anger with the perceived encroachment of politics into public schools, the poll finds. Yet even among those who voice such concerns, many do not share the deep-seated opposition to public education that defined home-schoolers of past decades, and the new crop is more likely to mix and match home schooling with public school, depending on their children’s needs.

The survey, the first of its kind since the pandemic spurred hundreds of thousands of families to try home schooling, offers the clearest reasons to date for its explosive growth, documenting shifts with broad implications for the future of U.S. education.

The poll’s findings suggest that American home schooling is evolving from a movement into a practice – no longer driven by shared ideology and political goals but by circumstances specific to individual families.

The results on faith stand out given the enormous influence conservative Christians have historically had over home-study curriculum, parent associations and lobbying efforts that shaped today’s loosely regulated home-schooling landscape.

In a 2012 federal survey, nearly 2 in 3 home-school parents listed a desire to provide religious instruction as a reason for home schooling. That dropped to about half of parents in 2016 and a small majority in 2019 federal surveys.

Now the share has fallen much further, The Post-Schar School poll finds, to 34 percent. Those who home-schooled before the pandemic are twice as likely to name providing religious instruction as those who began after.

These trends are powered by people like Elisabeth Hotard, a veterinarian from Folsom, La., who never considered home schooling before the pandemic. But remote learning during the school shutdowns went better than expected, and her family decided to keep her children, now ages 10 and 5, home.

The family attends a Baptist church, but Hotard has no desire to mix religious instruction into her children’s coursework.

“We’re going to talk about the Bible, and we’re going to talk about religion,” she said. “But I don’t need it to be in your reading lesson. I don’t need it in your math lesson.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Emily Kask
Elizabeth Hotard never considered home schooling before the pandemic.

Pundits, policymakers and journalists have speculated about families’ motivations ever since the number of home-schooled children began to rise dramatically at the start of the pandemic. But that guessing game has largely taken place in a vacuum of credible data: The federal government’s last survey of home-school parents was in 2019.

The Post-Schar School poll finds a group with a new blend of motivations and identities. Specifically, the survey finds that families who began home schooling after the onset of the pandemic are:

– More racially diverse. In 2019, the federal survey found that about three-quarters of home-schoolers were White. In the Post-Schar School survey, conducted in the summer using a different methodology, just under half are White, with the change driven by a jump in home schooling among Hispanic families. The survey is inconclusive about whether Black families make up a larger share of the home-schooling group today than in the past.

– More ideologically diverse. Families who began home schooling since the start of the pandemic are about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, whereas Republicans previously outnumbered Democrats 3 to 1. Nonetheless, home-schooling parents as a whole still lean more conservative and religious than the general population, with about 1 in 3 saying the Bible is the literal word of God and 46 percent saying liberal influence on public schools is a reason they home-school.

– More open to public schooling. About 7 in 10 parents who began home schooling since the start of the pandemic say they would consider sending their child to a local public school in the future, compared to about half of those who started earlier. The post-covid group is also more likely to have another child in the family enrolled in public school. And in another sign of today’s porous line between home school and traditional classes, 37 percent of parents say their home-schooled child takes some classes or subjects from a public or private school.

Nearly 7 in 10 parents say a desire to provide “moral instruction” is among their reasons for home-schooling. In a follow-up question, about half of those parents say this instruction is based on religious values, a number equivalent to those who list religion as a motivator.

Home-schoolers conform less and less to the stereotype of mom working one-on-one with her children at the kitchen table. In the poll, conducted Aug. 1-10, about half of home-school parents said their children would receive at least some instruction from a teacher or tutor this year, much higher than the 22 percent who said the same in 2019. Nearly 6 in 10 said their kids would take live online classes, and about 1 in 5 plan to participate in a home-school co-op.

In some cases, home-schooled children spend much of their time supervised by adults who are not their parents. The Post-Schar School poll finds about 1 in 10 home-school families using microschools or pods, where children are sometimes dropped off for the entire day – a contrast to more traditional co-ops, where parents are the primary educators.

Interviews with new home-school parents suggest many were intrigued by home schooling before the pandemic but wouldn’t have tried it absent the abrupt school closures in March 2020. While many parents were anxious to get their children back into school, some found they liked having their kids at home.

Ashley Perisian, a White stay-at-home mom in Buffalo, Minn., sent her oldest child to public school and figured she would do the same with her younger children. But when it looked like school might be remote as her middle child was set to enter kindergarten in fall 2020, she found the prospect wholly unappealing.

“Everything was up in the air,” she said. “We were like, let’s just try to home-school, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

She decided to home-school her youngest, who is now 7, as well. But her oldest child has had a wonderful experience in public school, and Perisian still may send the younger kids at some point.

That sentiment stands in dramatic contrast to earlier generations of parents for whom home schooling signaled a philosophical commitment to protecting their children from what some derisively called “government schools.”

“It’s on a year-by-year basis for us,” Perisian said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Nicole Neri
Ashley Perisian helps her son Hendrix Perisian, 7, with a writing exercise during a home-schooling session in Buffalo, Minn.

‘It’s just so terrifying’

Hännah Woods’s son wasn’t even in school yet, but she was terrified that a gunman might walk into the building and terrorize his school. Woods noticed how prevalent guns were in her town of Sweet Home, Ore. Once she heard about a child bringing a weapon into a local school.

So when the time came, she decided to home-school her 6-year-old son, now in first grade.

“It’s just so terrifying to think of it even happening,” said Woods, 32, a stay-at-home mom who is White. And even if there never is a shooter, she fears her child could be traumatized by drills.

“That was not what I had in my childhood,” she said. “We had fire drills. That was the scariest thing we went through.”

The Post-Schar School poll finds 62 percent of home-school parents say concern about school shootings affected their choice.

The most common reason cited for home schooling is a general concern about the school environment – encompassing worries about safety, drugs and negative peer pressure. Three in 4 parents cite this group of factors as part of their motivation, a figure little changed from the 2019 survey.

And 58 percent of home-schoolers worry about bullying. About 1 in 10 home-school parents volunteered this as their main reason for home schooling.

Tiffini Cavitt’s daughter was harassed on social media and at her middle school, where kids would try to find her and start fights, she said. It left the girl with crippling anxiety. Officials in her Baltimore County school, her mom added, weren’t helpful.

“She was calling me from the bathroom, saying, ‘I’m afraid to go to class,'” recalled Cavitt, 34, who is Black and from Owings Mills, Md.

Cavitt’s daughter, now 15, never returned to school after they shut down in the spring of 2020. Instead, Cavitt opted to home-school her, even as she sent her 7-year-old daughter back to a public elementary school that she described as much more supportive.

Cavitt knew next to nothing about home education at the outset, but with the help of an aunt who is a retired teacher, she cobbled together a curriculum based partly on what her daughter’s peers are studying in public school. She also branched out into subjects such as Black history, literature and film. Their study materials have included the 2013 movie “12 Years a Slave” and “Notes of a Native Son,” the collection of essays by James Baldwin.

“I’m kind of winging it,” she said.

Home-school parents also expressed dissatisfaction with how schools serve children with special needs, with about 1 in 3 saying it prompted them to home-school. Nearly 3 in 10 home-school parents say their child has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, about twice the rate of parents who do not home-school.

Alejandrina Chavarria, who is Hispanic, opted to home-school one of her three children after concluding that her El Paso school was not serving her needs.

Teachers said her daughter was bright but struggled to stay focused in class. Chavarria suspected she had an attention disorder but said school officials were slow to evaluate her and develop a specialized learning plan. She pleaded with administrators at the child’s elementary school to hold her back, but they said doing so was against policy.

“If she’s not keeping up in third grade, why are you passing her on to fourth grade and fifth grade?” Chavarria remembers asking.

Fears of indoctrination

Another factor: politics, and concerns that ideology is seeping into public schools.

Overall, home-school parents are far more likely to worry about liberal influences in public schools. Nearly half of parents are motivated by overly liberal schools, while about a quarter cite conservative viewpoints. The group that began home schooling since the pandemic is more closely divided between those two views.

Jerry Johnson, a White father in the Phoenix area, said politics are “definitely a concern” with the public schools. He and his wife send their two younger children to a private Montessori school. But when their oldest – a seventh-grader who is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD – aged out this year, they began to home-school him and have found it rewarding.

Unions push teachers to take liberal stances, Johnson argued, and conservatives are driven out of the profession. The only motivation he can imagine for becoming a teacher, given the low pay, is to help kids, but he said too many see advancing their liberal ideology as a way to do that.

His wife sympathizes with public school teachers – “it must be so hard to be underpaid and undersupported,” she said. But she, too, thinks the schools are pushing a liberal agenda. “This is weird to say as someone not White,” said Sara Johnson, who is Latina. “A lot of anti-White things are happening in our local school. I’m like, ‘No, everyone has value.’ We should be treating all people the same.” She declined to offer examples.

Similar motives were at work for Luis Bonilla, 41, a Hispanic pastor in Des Moines. He said schools push kids to change genders. He said he knows of a boy who said, casually, “I’m a princess, I’m a girl,” and he thinks many schools would “push him that way.” His family was also attuned to pandemic politics. Their oldest, now 8, was entering kindergarten in the fall of 2020. Bonilla opposed compulsory masks in school and feared the district would ultimately mandate covid vaccinations.

Covid politics also shaped parents’ views. About 3 in 10 home-school parents say they choose to home school in part because covid-19 policies in their local public schools were too strict, with requirements such as masking, testing or closing buildings.

Still, nearly as many say they are motivated in part because policies were not strict enough. Those and other concerns from the left drove a new liberal crop of home-schoolers.

Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble
Luis and Savannah Bonilla watch their three sons, from left, Zander, 5, Cohen, 4, and Felyx, 8, at their home in Altoona, Iowa.

Courtney Briceño of Volusia County, Fla., began home-schooling her 16-year-old and twin 12-year-old stepchildren last month. A former teacher, Briceño survived a shooting at a high school where she taught in Brooklyn and wants to protect her kids from gun violence. But she also is unnerved by the conservative pressure Florida schools are under in teaching about gender and race.

Briceño, who is White, said last year her daughter was taught that the Trail of Tears involved Native Americans “leaving the reservations because they wanted more land.” In fact, White settlers backed by the government forced Native Americans off their land, including in Florida, and marched them hundreds of miles away.

In addition, Briceño said their local school library was subject to book challenges and temporarily closed while librarians were forced to check whether every title was on an approved list. After that, she said, one of her sons, a prolific reader, was so angry that he stopped using that library.

“He stopped bringing books home from school completely,” she said.

While home schooling, she said, her family plans to travel and visit places important in American history. Their first stop: a Native American cultural center in Mississippi.

‘What it means to be a home-schooler’

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Courtney Briceño helps Nathaniel Briceño with a history lesson.

Together these new findings paint a portrait of American home schooling that has not just grown larger but changed in ways that could have far-reaching implications.

In the 1980s and 1990s, activists who viewed home schooling as a form of religious liberty persuaded officials in many states to eliminate or minimize testing of their children’s academic progress and to do away with basic qualifications for parents who wished to be home educators. Today, there may be more openness to oversight.

Hotard, the home-schooler from Folsom, La., who is White, supports greater regulation, at least in Louisiana, which is classified as a “low regulation” state by the Home School Legal Defense Association.

In the absence of meaningful oversight, she said, she has witnessed situations in which “home-schooled” kids don’t get much schooling. Those are cases to which she – once a public school teacher like her husband – is particularly sensitive.

“I’ve seen some friends who basically just don’t do any curriculum and say, ‘Well, they’ll learn stuff from watching online.’ And you have 12-year-olds who can’t read,” Hotard said.

Parents who are not motivated by religious freedom might be more open to regulation, said Anne Holton, professor of education policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“The parents who are in it for other reasons may be less resistant,” she said.

The new parents who are less suspicious of government could also impact one of the hottest debates in education today: the creation of voucher programs that give families thousands of dollars to offset school expenses. Some home-schoolers already participate in these programs, a contrast with those who have long feared that accepting tax money opens the door to regulations.

Today’s home educators are also transforming how children learn outside traditional schools. They have increased demand for more secular curriculum offerings and fueled the growth of microschools and pods where students are dropped off for “home-school” learning.

“I don’t personally teach my children,” said Prin Heard, 36, of Powder Springs, Ga., who is Black. Instead, her 8- and 6-year-old daughters are instructed virtually at a microschool founded by a former public school teacher. None of these arrangements were contemplated by the original home-school laws.

The Post-Schar School poll’s finding on home-school families who also send some of their children to traditional schools struck Robert Kunzman, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Education and director of the International Center for Home Education Research. He said this may augur a less “oppositional” relationship between home-schoolers and the public education system.

“Families,” he said, “who choose home schooling less for ideological reasons and more for matters of circumstance and what meets the needs of their child in the present moment will help change our conception of what it means to be a home-schooler.”