Homeschooling has surged in the United States in the last few years. Before the pandemic, around 3% of households homeschooled their children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number rose to an all-time high during the pandemic, more than doubling by the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Now, despite schools returning to in-person learning and the prevalence of vaccines, many parents are still choosing to keep learning a family affair.
“Homeschoolers get this misconception that they live on the prairie and ground their own wheat, but it’s getting more mainstream,” says Sandra Kim, director of media relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association, an advocacy group.
For those thinking about making the switch, here are some of the things to know.
What is Homeschooling?
Homeschooling, simply put, is parent-directed education. While every state has a slightly different definition, parent involvement is the hallmark of homeschooling.
The modern homeschooling movement in the United States began in the 1970s, when parents who felt public schools focused too much on compliance and rote learning advocated for “unschooling.” In the 1980s, homeschooling was increasingly embraced by conservative Christians who felt public schools were a negative influence. After a series of legal battles, homeschooling is now legal in all 50 states, but rules and regulations vary widely.
The reasons parents choose homeschooling have changed over the last few decades, says Carol Topp, an accountant who has worked closely with homeschool groups.
“You had the faith-based, religious reasons, or the counter-cultural, unschooling emphasis, and it has changed,” Topp says. Now, “parents are concerned about the school environment, about bullying and social peer pressure. Then, during the pandemic, parents got a glimpse of what teachers were saying and doing and some parents didn’t like what they were seeing.”
For some parents, the flexibility of a homeschooling schedule makes it an attractive option, removing stress for both students and families. Homeschooling can also be beneficial for students with learning or health challenges, making regular breaks or visits to the doctor a normal part of the day rather than a disruption.
Of course, homeschooling has its own set of challenges, from burnout for caregivers trying to juggle both parenting and teaching, to reduced access to resources and support services.
Kim of the Home School Legal Defense Association says she and her husband began homeschooling their own three children a few months into the pandemic. While they were able to keep their full-time jobs by hiring a tutor and using online curricula, homeschooling can be difficult for working parents.
Some critics have pointed to more concerning risks for children, including lower educational quality and the potential for isolation and abuse.
Robert Kunzman has studied homeschooling for nearly two decades as a professor at Indiana University and managing director of the International Center for Home Education Research. He says the homeschool experience, just like conventional school, runs the gamut in terms of quality and benefits.
“It really depends on the child and the family,” Kunzman says. “I certainly don’t think it’s a good fit for everyone, but I think there are situations where it makes a valuable difference in the educational experience of a young person and can meet their needs in the way an institutional setting can’t.”
How to Get Started With Homeschooling
Once a parent decides to homeschool their child, one of the first steps is to file notice with either the state department of education or the local school district. In some states that will be a one-time notice, as in Florida, or an annual notice, like in New York. Other states, like Texas, do not require any notification.
[READ: Should Kids Get Homework?]
Parents will also want to be aware of their state’s unique homeschooling rules and regulations, including compulsory attendance requirements, which mandate when and for how long children must be in school. Some states also have parent qualification requirements, typically at least a high school degree or GED. Many states also require end-of-year standardized tests to ensure students are staying on pace with their learning.
Next can be the fun part for a lot of parents: choosing the curriculum they will use to teach their children. Options certainly aren’t hard to find, from old school catalogs and curriculum fairs at the local public library to an online marketplace that has exploded over the last 20 years.
Indiana University’s Kunzman says that it’s important for parents to separate “the wheat from the chaff and figure out which resources are useful and valuable.”
Cost should be considered too — curriculum provider Time4Learning estimates that parents can expect to pay roughly $700-$1,800 per year on curriculum, materials, field trips and extracurriculars.
As students get older and learning might surpass what a parent is comfortable teaching themselves, some homeschoolers end up back in traditional school. But, if parents and students want to continue homeschooling, one popular option is dual enrollment, where high school students (including students who are homeschooled) take college classes for both high school and college credit.
And when it comes time for homeschool families to think about the college admissions process, Kunzman says parents and students shouldn’t worry, as colleges have become increasingly receptive to homeschoolers over the years.
Homeschooling doesn’t mean going it alone, and Kunzman says successful homeschooling happens when parents understand their own academic strengths and weaknesses and where they need help.
There are a number of community supports available to homeschool families, ranging from a tutor to joining a homeschool co-op, where multiple families meet together with parents alternating days or subjects taught.
Many communities have meet-up groups and “homeschool days” at local museums, libraries and attractions. In some states, there are even more formal, publicly funded enrichment programs, like Thrive Home School Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Thrive operates much like any other K-12 school, with scheduled classes, a library, playground, cafeteria, computer lab and after-school clubs. But students, who are all homeschooled, attend classes only one day a week. It’s one of five such programs in Colorado that serves thousands of homeschool students.
Principal Yvonne Padilla says a program like Thrive is a valuable resource for homeschoolers, many of whom come from single-income families. It offers everything from musical instruments to a mobile planetarium to theater and fencing.
“We offer opportunities for experiences that aren’t easy at home,” says Padilla. “A public school student is typically tapped into those resources through their school, and that’s the resource we provide.”
What to Expect
For parents just starting out, recognizing that homeschool doesn’t have to mirror regular school can be a major revelation. That includes the fact that just because homeschooling is parent-directed doesn’t mean it has to become all-encompassing.
“It’s typical for new homeschool parents to start out pretty structured and replicate what they think school looks like,” Kunzman says. “As they gain confidence they tend to loosen up, become less structured, and take advantage of the flexibility that homeschool offers.”
Each school day, Kim and her husband spend about an hour or so side-by-side with their kids, finishing a math worksheet or studying poetry. The kids complete the rest of their work online or with a tutor.
Some afternoons, Kim says, she drops the kids off at their co-op, where they learn with other homeschool students, diving into studies on reptiles and world geography. More often than not, there’s time left for independent reading or to simply go outside for a bike ride on a beautiful day.
Kim says that one of the best parts of homeschooling has been its flexibility. Units that might have taken a month in school can be done in a week at home, leaving more time for family activities. That might mean excursions to nearby cultural destinations or even a planned international trip, an idea that seemed unfathomable within the constraints of the normal school schedule.
Whether the current growth in homeschooling will prove sustainable remains to be seen, but as parents continue to experiment with new ways of schooling, there will be deeper questions to answer not only about homeschooling but schooling in general, Kunzman says.
“Now that we have virtual schooling and all these different ways we do school that isn’t just being in one building for six or seven hours a day, it’s not just a debate amongst scholars,” he says. “The possibilities have grown as well.”
More from U.S. News