A recently released batch of federal data offers a portrait of the nation’s homeschool population, including the backgrounds of students and their families’ reasons for choosing that option.
The information provides potentially useful intel for companies that are working in the homeschool market or thinking of jumping into it. The data are included in the “First Look” report on Parent and Family Involvement in Education, a collection of survey results published by the National Center for Education Statistics, in which parents were asked a series of questions about their children’s education.
One of the most interesting findings is that the percentage of U.S. students who are homeschooled appears to have leveled off in recent years.
In 1999, 1.7 percent of the nation’s students were homeschooled, and that number rose fairly steadily over time, to reach 3.4 percent in 2012. Yet in 2016, the portion of homeschoolers basically flatlined, at 3.3 percent. (Kudos to Sarah Grady, a statistician and project officer with NCES for laying this out in admirably digestible form in a recent blog post.)
The total number of U.S. homeschool students stood at 1,689,726 last year, according to the report.
The demands of homeschool families have been evolving in recent years, as my colleague Michelle Davis recently reported in a story in EdWeek Market Brief. The rapid growth of digital programs and curricula have given families greater freedom to buy all-in-one curricula or choose from a menu of online options.
The universe of companies serving homeschoolers today includes curriculum companies like Calvert Education and Sonlight—a Christian-focused academic program—as well as huge online providers like K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, owned by Pearson.
What would explain the flattening out of the homeschool population after years of growth? Indiana University Professor Christopher Lubienski offered my colleague Arianna Prothero a couple possible reasons. One might be that the Christian homeschool movement has traded an interest in rapid expansion for a focus on retrenching and supporting the rights of current homeschoolers. An overall slowing of the economy during the period in question might also be a factor, as could the potential for the homeschool population’s growth reaching a ceiling, Lubienski speculated.
The NCES report also offers data on what kinds of communities—cities, suburbs, towns, or rural areas—homeschool students are based in. Suburban students make up the biggest slice of the homeschool population:
Male students slightly outnumber females, the data show. The largest portion of homeschool students, nearly 60 percent, are white; followed by 26 percent, Hispanic; 8 percent, black, non-Hispanic; 4 percent other non-Hispanic; and 3 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.
The data also speak to the equivalent grade levels of homeschool students. The largest portion, 31 percent, are high school age; 24 percent are the equivalent of grades 6-8; 23 percent are grades K-2, and 22 percent are grades 3-5.
Twenty-one percent of homeschool students are from impoverished backgrounds, and 79 percent are considered non-poor, according to NCES. The measurement is based on whether students are above or below the poverty threshold.
[Update (Nov. 22): A couple readers have asked how the homeschool data compare with estimates from the overall school U.S. student population. So I took some comparisons from NCES’ Digest of Education Statistics, and there are similarities in many data categories.
In terms of location, the numbers are pretty similar: Out of a total U.S. public school population of roughly 50 million students, 40 percent of those students are based in suburban areas, and 30 percent are based in cities — roughly the same portion of homeschoolers found in each of those communities.
Eleven percent of overall public school students are based in towns, compared to 10 percent of homeschoolers. A slightly lower portion of public school students go to school in rural areas, 18 percent, compared to 22 percent of homeschoolers.
Overall, the U.S. public school population has a smaller portion of white students (50 percent) and a larger portion of black students, (15.6 percent) than the homeschool community. The Hispanic population, at 24 percent, is fairly similar.
In terms of poverty level, the federal data I’ve found uses a different measure: the percentage of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches. Twenty-four percent of U.S. public school students attend “high-poverty” schools, where more than 75 percent of the students qualify for the program. About 20 percent attend low-poverty schools. The rest, roughly 55 percent, attend schools where between 25-75 percent of the students qualify for the lunch program.]
The survey also asked parents about why they choose to homeschool their children:
The biggest factors leading parents to the homeschool option were concerns about the environment at other schools, while a desire to provide more instruction, and a dissatisfaction with traditional schools’ academic performance, also ranked high among families.